Policy Papers

Renewing the War on Waste

Dr Henry Irving |

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Executive Summary

  • The Environment Bill contains ambitious provisions for waste collection and has the potential to transform recycling in England.
  • DEFRA’s proposals echo those of the Ministry of Supply during the Second World War. An understanding of this history draws attention to lessons and warnings that are applicable today.
  • The implementation of a compulsory recycling scheme in summer 1940 led to a short term reduction in collections and long term doubts about the system. The staged implementation of consistent collections would avoid similar problems in October 2023 and could lead to higher rates of adoption in the long term.
  • Wartime encouraged a temporary shift from private to communal dustbins. DEFRA should require local authorities to consider the viability of similar schemes before granting technical exemptions to consistent collection for reasons of urban geography.
  • Surveys carried out in the 1940s showed that local messages were effective but had a greater impact when combined with other appeals, especially personal ones. DEFRA needs to devote more resources to explaining the historic changes included in the Environment Bill.
  • A lengthy delay between the implementation of consistent collections and the introduction of clear labelling risks causing frustration – with people being told to do the right thing, only to find that the system makes it hard for them to do so. Similar problems in summer 1940 made later appeals less effective.


The government’s long-awaited Environment Bill is passing through the final stages of Parliamentary scrutiny and is on track to become law around the time of the United Nation’s COP26 climate conference in Glasgow. The bill contains wide-ranging provisions that are designed to address climate change and biodiversity loss, while improving resource management.

One of its least controversial parts will signal a historical change to the way waste is managed in the United Kingdom, with far reaching provisions for waste collection in England (it is a devolved responsibility).This part of the Environment Bill is rooted in the 2018 resource and waste strategy published by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). That document established a commitment to ‘move towards a circular economy’ by minimising waste and promoting reuse and recycling. The ambition remains for England to ‘become a world leader in using resources efficiently and reducing the amount of waste we create as a society’.

The most significant of DEFRA’s proposals echo policies that were introduced by the Ministry of Supply in 1940. An understanding of this history is necessary to avoid repeating wartime mistakes and retain support for the proposals.


Words and Actions

The Environment Bill has been broadly welcomed by campaigners and green groups, many of whom have warned of a gulf between words and actions since 2018. The scope of legislative change is a marked advance on the government’s previous waste prevention plan. Published in 2013, this aimed to reduce ‘the quantity and impact of waste produced’ by introducing incentives for behaviour change. The waste reduction charity WRAP calculates that 387,000 tonnes of waste were prevented between 2013-19, 103,000 tonnes of which would not have been prevented in the absence of the plan. The larger figure accounts for roughly 0.002 per cent of the waste produced during the same period. ‘We have a very long way to go indeed’, warns Libby Peak, Green Alliance’s head of resource strategy.

In their defence, DEFRA points to a rise in English household recycling rates from 11 per cent in 2001 to 45.5 per cent in 2019, and a fall in the amount of household waste produced in the same period. The pace of change has, however, slowed considerably since 2011 and statistics collected by DEFRA and show that English recycling rates have been stuck around 45 per cent for the past seven years. The current target of 65 per cent by 2035 will require a significant change in behaviour.





The lack of progress has been variously attributed to a lack of funding from central government and a lack of consistency between local authorities. The national average certainly conceals significant variations. The 2019-20 figures show that household recycling rates in England ranged from 18.8 per cent (in Barrow in Furness, Cumbria) to 64. 1 per cent (in Three Rivers, Hertfordshire). At a UK-level, England has lagged behind Wales (56.4 per cent in 2019) since 2010 and was overtaken by Northern Ireland (50.6 per cent in 2019) in 2017.

In practice, these figures mean that the average household refuse bin in England contains large amounts of material that simply should not be there. A WRAP study carried out in 2017 found that discarded food made up 18 per cent of the household waste stream, paper and card another 18 per cent, plastic 9 per cent, glass 7 per cent, metals 4 per cent and textiles 4 per cent. The majority of this waste was recyclable, and able to be collected or deposited at communal facilities like bottle and textile banks.

The COVID-19 pandemic and Britain’s departure from the European Union have created new challenges. Local authority services have been seriously disrupted by illness, self-isolation and the shortage of HGV drivers in the UK. At least 18 local authorities have had to delay bin collections as a result of these factors. The pandemic has also led to shifts in consumer behaviour. Plastic waste has increased sharply, due to a fall in the price of virgin materials and an increased demand for single-use items like masks, while the boom in online shopping has upset the market for recycled cardboard as so many boxes ended up contaminated. At the same time, most local authorities have seen – sometimes dramatic – increases in household recycling. In Leeds, for instance, the closure of hospitality venues led to an estimated 37 per cent increase in the amount of glass recycled at communal bottle banks.


Echoes from 1940

The Environment Bill is designed to reinvigorate recycling by transforming existing practises. If passed, it will lead to:

  1. Consistent recycling collections by local councils in England.
  2. Weekly food waste collections by local councils in England.
  3. Additional charges on single use plastics and a deposit return scheme for drinks containers.
  4. An extension to producer responsibility schemes for packaging.
  5. Clearer labelling so consumers can easily identify recyclable and non-recyclable materials.

These policies are designed to work in combination. The aim is for all households to have access to a food waste and recycling service for the same ‘core set’ of materials (including, at a minimum, paper and cardboard, plastic, cans and glass). This standardisation will in turn allow all packaging to be labelled simply ‘Recycle’ or ‘Do not recycle’. The initial costs of collection and communication will be funded by central government, but eventually recouped from the producer responsibly scheme.

To make this work, DEFRA has developed an implementation plan with support from WRAP and has consulted with local authorities and the waste industry. It hopes consistent collections and the first phase of the producer responsibility scheme will begin in October 2023, with mandatory labelling from 2025-27. This timeline will be confirmed when the Environment Bill becomes law.

This is not the first time the UK government have sought to rationalise and reinvigorate household recycling. During the Second World War, the government used emergency legislation to divert materials into the war economy. The declaration of hostilities and prospect of material shortages jolted the government into action. On 5 October 1939, the Ministry of Supply established a special directorate to develop a system for both civilian and military recycling – which was then called ‘salvage’. Its work on the home front was developed in three phases.

The first was focused on increasing capacity and ran until June 1940. At the start of the war, only a handful of local authorities collected salvage directly from households, although around 70 had mechanical separation and reclamation plants capable of extracting materials from the waste stream after collection. The amount returned to industry was estimated to account for at most 2.5 per cent of peacetime refuse. To increase this number, the Ministry of Supply encouraged local authorities to develop plans for the collection or reclamation of recyclable materials and required councils to submit monthly salvage statistics.

In the second phase, from June 1940, a series of minimum standards were enforced by emergency powers. In line with the Environment Bill, a compulsory direction required local authorities to implement a ‘regular and dependable’ scheme for the collection of paper, metal and household bones. These rules were the first legal powers to compel kerbside recycling in the UK and remained in force until 1949. The change was supported by a large-scale publicity campaign, which is considered in more detail below.

The third phase involved the tightening of controls over the public. In November 1940, it became an offense to remove salvageable material without the owner’s consent. These rules were strengthened in March 1942, when the Salvage of Waste Materials (No. 2) Order made it a criminal offence to burn, throw away or contaminate waste paper or cardboard. This was subsequently extended to cover rags, rope, string and rubber. Although these orders introduced fines and even the prospect of prison sentences, they were primarily designed to emphasise the importance of engagement and used to caution against careless behaviour.

These measures sat alongside legal controls capping prices and limiting the amount of materials available for civilian uses. In February 1940, for example, a quota control was introduced for paper. This was a form of industrial rationing that imposed limits on the amount of paper available compared to a baseline of pre-war consumption. The quota was initially set at 60 per cent and was progressively reduced to 37.5 per cent by the end of 1941.


Consistent Collections

The current government’s plan for consistent recycling collection extends beyond the system introduced in June 1940. Despite the wartime emergency, there was never a one-sized-fits-all approach during the Second World War. Proposals to nationalise the waste system were rejected as impractical and local authorities remained free to choose the most suitable forms of collection for their area. The government also recognised the additional challenges faced in rural areas and the head start enjoyed by larger councils with more established refuse collection services. For these reasons, the compulsory direction to collect paper, metal and bones was initially limited to local authority areas with populations over 10,000, before being extended to smaller towns with 5-10,000 inhabitants in March 1941.

Services are today more consistent and DEFRA acknowledge that exceptions may be applied in places where consistent collections are technically or economically impractical, or where the environmental benefit cannot be proven. These caveats are designed to account for issues arising from the geographical location of properties or the availability of recycling infrastructure. However, the disparities in recycling rates within England suggest that the implementation of a consistent system to level up recycling rates will not be unproblematic, even where exemptions do not apply.

DEFRA explains its decision to apply rules uniformly by noting that their core materials are currently collected by 76 per cent of local authorities. It is impossible to accurately calculate the percentage of local authorities collecting paper, metal and bones prior to the compulsory direction in June 1940 as the wartime government did not know how many councils should have submitted returns. However, the self-reported statistics collated by the Ministry of Supply show that the number fell by roughly 16 per cent during the summer of 1940 because of problems with collection and processing caused by the new rules. This highlights the need to tackle the root causes of current disparities rather than hoping consistent collections will be a magic bullet. It also hints at the importance of secure markets for secondary materials, which are far from certain in the case of plastics. A deliberately staged approach to implementation could avoid teething problems and ensure a higher rates adoption in the long term by safeguarding against claims of economic impracticality.

Wartime experience also highlights just how important bins will be to the success of the DEFRA scheme. This is another example where the one-sized-fits-all approach risks increased levels of opting out. The proposal that core materials will be ‘collected separately from each other’ has already led to questions about how households will store multiple bins and containers, while DEFRA explains that ‘type of housing stock’ could be a legitimate reason for an exception. Its suggestion that new bins could be introduced across England was strongly rejected in an earlier consultation.

Most urban households before the Second World War disposed of their refuse in a metal dustbin that was either approved of or supplied by their council. On collection days, refuse workers would empty the bin and return it to the property, whether to a backyard, front doorstep, or communal store. The implementation of recycling schemes led to a proliferation of bins and containers and increased the time taken to complete collection rounds.

As the war went on, many councils replaced private dustbins with communal ones. Existing bins were moved from backyards and onto the street, where they were repainted and labelled for specific materials. Such moves were not unanimously welcomed (there were frequent complaints about foul smelling food waste bins, for example) but the use of communal facilities allowed local authorities to increase the frequency of collection from a smaller number of sites. If DEFRA retains its commitment to uniform separation, it should also require local authorities to consider the viability of similar strategies before granting technical exemptions for reasons of urban geography.

Communal approaches will be most important in high-density settings. During the Second World War, flats were commonly identified as having the lowest recycling rates and most problems with compliance. DEFRA has specifically included flats in its for plan consistent collection but has also identified them as a likely example where exemptions will apply. To avoid a repeat of wartime problems, work needs to be done in advance of implementation, rather than waiting for issues to arise.


Explaining Changes

The provisions in the Environment Bill are primarily focused on businesses and local government, reflecting its emphasis on producer responsibility and the legal responsibility of local councils to collect household waste. Nevertheless, changes in waste management ultimately depends on individual behaviour change. Household recycling is, after all, an activity that starts in the home.

DEFRA’s 2018 waste strategy argued that ‘incentives and nudges, when they accompany good services and communications, can make a real difference to people’s engagement in recycling’. This belief is reflected in various studies of recycling behaviour. It is accepted that the availability of recycling services has the greatest impact on participation, but that engagement can be significantly improved through active promotion. The latest guidance from DEFRA notes that it will develop advice on communications for local authorities, as well as working with WRAP to support a national publicity campaign.

The value of local messaging emerged clearly during the Second World War. In August 1943, the government’s wartime social survey asked people what spurred them to recycle. Of the 46 per cent who said there were times they made ‘a special effort’, 32 per cent referred to local campaigns compared to 21 per cent for national appeals. These findings were echoed in similar surveys about other publicity campaigns. The success of localised appeals encouraged the Ministry of Supply to establish a regional publicity machinery responsible for working with local authorities to adapt publicity to suit local practices.

DEFRA is right to place emphasis on local communication and should be applauded for its commitment to fund councils to carry out this work. Wartime experience suggests they will be best placed to explain how consistent collections will be introduced in their areas. This point is backed up by a recent YouGov poll commissioned by the author based on the wartime social survey. This found that the best remembered recycling publicity today is found on bins and waste collection vehicles (being mentioned by 60% of respondents). Yet the wartime example also suggests that these messages need to be accompanied by a more ambitious national campaign.

WRAP estimates that recognition of its ‘Recycle Now’ symbol is 66 per cent, but that only 7 per cent have seen or heard of its annual ‘Recycle Week’ (held since 2004) and 14 per cent recognise its ‘Britain Recycles’ campaign. By contrast, a May 1942 wartime social survey about attitudes towards government instructions found that recycling was the most recognised campaign on the home front, being mentioned by some 31 per cent of respondents. This finding can be explained by both the strength of local campaigns during 1942 and the sustained national publicity that accompanied the compulsory direction to collect paper, metal and bones in summer 1940.

The publicity campaign that accompanied the 1940 change included an instructional leaflet, various broadcasts and newsreel interviews, a newspaper advertising campaign, posters and a film. Its scale resulted from a belief that national salience was a necessary foundation for targeted local appeals. While the specific messages used does not easily translate into the twenty first century, wartime techniques could be harnessed to explain the changes that will take place in October 2023. The move to consistent collections is a historic change and should be treated as such.

The most important single part of the 1940 campaign was the involvement of ordinary citizens through a nationwide canvass organised by the Women’s Voluntary Services with support from the Ministry of Supply. Between August and October 1940, these volunteers hand delivered almost 9 million copies of the government’s instructional leaflet. In almost all cases, they also spoke with the householder about the scheme in their area. Personal appeals like these were frequently cited as having had most impact – a belief that is echoed by contemporary studies finding that community norms have a significant impact on recycling rates. The success of mutual assistance schemes and community litter picks during the COVID-19 pandemic suggests that there is scope to organise similar activities through local Zero Waste groups or national bodies like Keep Britain Tidy. The planning and funding for such activities needs to begin now.


After Implementation

The wartime history of recycling also contains clear warnings about public attitudes after implementation. As noted in the section on ‘Consistent Collections’, the number of local authorities collecting paper and metal fell in summer 1940. The uneven working of the system coloured public perceptions and led to scepticism about local authorities’ abilities to manage. The push-back would likely have been more serious had it not been for a late decision to delay enforcing controls over the public until the system had bedded in. Those responsible for promoting the scheme nevertheless complained that publicity had outrun machinery – making future appeals more difficult.

At various points during the war, frustrations about service delivery spilled over into a more general scepticism about recycling in general. In March 1942, for instance, the Wartime Social Survey found that 40 per cent of people expressed doubt about the uses to which salvage was put. Towards the end of the war, the suspension of the collection of tins (which only very few local authorities had the capacity to process) seems to have increased doubts about the need to recycle, leading to a wider falling-off of engagement.

The YouGov poll commissioned by the author show that people are currently willing to give the benefit of the doubt. The survey found that 46 per cent thought that ‘good use’ was made of recycling in their area, compared to 13 per who disagreed. High levels of engagement have nevertheless created comparable problems to those experienced during the war

WRAP has measured recycling attitudes and behaviours since 2004. Its most recent survey show that recycling is very well-established in the UK, with 89 per cent of respondents saying that they recycled ‘regularly’ compared to just 3 per cent who said ‘rarely’ or ‘never’. However, the same data reveals that 80 per cent were putting items into their recycling bin that could not be processed in their local area. Put simply, most households act based on what they think ‘should’ – rather than ‘can’ – be recycled. A recent project in Reading came to a similar conclusion, finding that residents with contaminated bins often ‘felt like they were exemplary recyclers as they had [their own] ideas of what could be recycled’.

DEFRA hopes that the roll out of consistent collection and clear labelling will overcome these problems, but its current timetable for implementation will not see the introduction of mandatory label changes until 2025 at the earliest. The risk is that this will cause similar frustrations to those experienced in the summer of 1940 – with people being told to do the right thing, only to find that the system makes it hard for them to do so. The introduction of consistent collections for glass bottles and jars will reduce some contamination but will do nothing to resolve the confusion caused by different forms of plastic packaging. History suggests that, to be most effective, either both changes need to be brought into line or additional funding needs to be assigned to tackle contamination during the transition.



The wartime government’s compulsory direction to collect paper, metal and bones was an attempt to rationalise a recycling system that had been hastily constructed. The Ministry of Supply accepted that a one-sized-fits-all approach was impractical and thought carefully about how to communicate the policy. However, the implementation was still botched, creating frictions that had a long-term impact on public attitudes.

Recycling is today far more entrenched than in 1940 and DEFRA’s goals are more ambitious than the Ministry of Supply’s. The challenge is to get the implementation right. An understanding of what happened during the Second World War highlights that DEFRA should:

  • Consider the staged implementation of consistent collections to avoid problems in implementation and ensure a secure market for secondary materials.
  • Promote communal collection as an alternative to multiple containers or expensive standardised bins.
  • Commit to a more ambitious communication strategy, with local instructions supported by a national campaign and community-led activities.
  • Bring forward the roll out of clear labelling to tackle contamination and avoid potential frustration.

Further Reading

Tim Cooper, ‘Challenging the “refuse revolution”: war, waste and the rediscovery of recycling, 1900–50’, Historical Research, 81:214 (2008), 710-3

Henry Irving, ‘Paper Salvage in Britain during the Second World War’, Historical Research, 89:244 (2016), 373-93

Henry Irving, ‘The War on Waste: Using urban history to inspire behavioural change’, Urban History, 48:2 (2021), 307-319

Henry Irving, ‘“We want everybody’s salvage!”: Recycling, voluntarism and the people’s war’, Cultural and Social History, 16:2 (2019), 165-84

Mark Riley, ‘From salvage to recycling: New agendas or same old rubbish’, Area, 40:1 (2008), 79-89.

Susan Strasser, Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash (New York: Metropolitan Books, 1999)

Peter Thorsheim, Waste into Weapons: Recycling in Britain during the Second World War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015)

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