Jacob Hayler, executive director of the Environmental Services Association, looks how to improve quality in the recycling materials stream.
OPINION: In the media over the last 12 months there have been a whole series of “horror pictures” of mixed plastics dumped and left to rot both in the UK and abroad alongside the questions such as: who is to blame? How did this happen?
Clearly the criminals who handled the materials along the line bear the bulk of the responsibility for the mishandling and abandoning – undercutting legitimate industry. But that’s not the whole story, take a good look at the dumped waste…if the individual materials making up the pile of abandoned waste were all neatly separated into the various types and grades, free of contamination, a significant proportion would have a positive economic value – and would not have dumped.
Defra’s Flycapture database records more than 1 million flytipping incidents a year, and I can say with absolute confidence, not even looking at a single record, that there were no incidents involving bags of money being dumped…if someone had done this I’m sure a good spirited member of the public would have cleared up the “inconvenience”.
Contamination isn’t just an inconvenience, nor should it be viewed as inevitable, it’s a lost opportunity, a failure (or multiple failures) in the system– meaning valuable materials are lost.
So often the finger of blame for contamination falls on the MRF, – “if only they tried a bit harder we wouldn’t have any contamination”. MRF operators spend millions of pounds on equipment and jobs, to remove the contamination in the recycling streams to achieve the standards which their secondary materials customers want. However the recovery and sorting facilities have little or no control over what arrives at the MRF to be sorted; no control over the design of products that are difficult or impossible to recover; nor over disengaged consumers who load their recycle bins with materials that should never be there (e.g. nappies!).
So how do we get to a position where maximum value is extracted the collected materials? To achieve these changes it comes down to three words: quality, quality, quality.
Quality in design and manufacture: Public pressure is already making a difference, for example on a recent journey on public transport 2 adverts caught my eye; Heineken multipacks which have removed the need for plastic rings; and ball point pens with plastic free packaging. A start perhaps, but a more co-ordination is needed, forced through EPR which helps avoid unintended consequences (e.g. bioplastics which contaminate the dry stream and which don’t compost very well) A modulated fee system which incentivises producers to remove the worst product formats from the market, and incentives to ensure that there is a vibrant market for recovered materials to be used rather than the virgin alternatives.
Quality information for a confused public: clear information for what to do when we have finished with an item. It has to yes or no, no in-betweens/no check locally. I’m hopeful that the planned OPRL labelling update will help make life simpler for the millions of folk who just want to know what bin they need to put their recycling in.
Quality industry: operating in a professional manner, constantly improving performance, segregating valuable materials, and then extracting the embedded energy from residual waste. Operating in an environment free from the unfair competition from criminals. Government and regulators need to support the market by agreeing/supporting recognised quality standards, be that for end markets at home or abroad.
It can be tempting to push the problems of today to tomorrow, waiting for the implementation of “golden mix” legislative, policy and tax changes to fix the issues. The truth is that there few quick fixes, changes in the legislation and incentives will help if designed properly and implemented sensibly – but will not solve the issues of contamination of collected materials.
Today even without the implemented proposals from the Resources and Waste Strategy there is much that can be done with closer cooperation between our sector and the supply chain to understand root causes of the contamination seen. Some of the more progressive designers and brands are already making requests to come and see first-hand the issues faced at the kerbside and at MRFs.
If designers and manufacturers had a better understanding of the “downstream” effects of some the decisions made on the design of their packaging, I’m sure they would rethink their approaches. An idea which I have mused upon over the last few weeks is to gather a list of the top X “Angels and Demons” of packaging products to recover (or not as the case maybe). Highlighting how the design of a product can make the difference between its components being recovered, or ending up in the residual waste. I’d be interested in your examples, you never know we might just start a list…