23 October 2019

‘Are we taking the value of resources seriously?’

OPINION: Is a commitment to maximise the value of resource use being taken seriously, asks Simon Weston, Director of Raw Materials at the Confederation of Paper Industries.

In the recent national strategy document “Our Waste, Our Resources: A strategy for England” the UK Government set a clear objective to “maximise the value of resource use”. From a fibre perspective the UK re-processing industry is asking “is this commitment being taken seriously or even worked towards”?

Our answer is no, with serious concerns being raised by recent comments by a senior manager at leading waste management company suggesting that the most appropriate way to deal with household mixed paper is to burn it; an article in letsrecycle.com authored by a well-known machine manufacturer encouraging readers to believe that they have technology “to target almost any recyclable fraction and separate it at the quantity and quality demanded by global markets”; and news from local authorities such as North Warwickshire Borough Council and Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole councils that they are moving to comingled systems including glass.  All of this clearly demonstrates that thinking about collection systems has lost its way.

The CPI’s Simon Weston says that the quality message will be even more important in the future in terms of the fibre stream generated from household collections

The global economy is slowing, but the medium-term market for high quality recyclate remains and is growing.  Any proposal to incinerate recovered fibre is the consequence of a recovery system that delivers poor quality because it is unfit for purpose.  The current malaise is the result of more than a decade of encouraging the public to join a race to the bottom, striving for recycling made easy not for quality, and supported by a misguided belief that collection rates are the same as recycling rates and MRF technology can sort anything.

Mixed papers

There is a global market for high quality mixed paper.  Proof, if any were needed, can be found in Japan where domestically recovered material is always in high demand because it is high quality.  Most paper mills making the paper that constitutes a cardboard box prefer to use up to 25% of mixed papers in their raw material furnish because it helps the balance of fibres and chemicals in their process. Those mills making other products can extract material they need from uncontaminated separately collected mixed papers. The challenge for the paper reprocessing industry is the abject quality of fibre collected from comingled collections.   When citizens are encouraged to put everything in the same bin, as they are when comingling, they unwittingly cross contaminate, but more importantly they are disengaged from thinking about the process and what therefore should and should not be put out for recycling.

The mixed paper stream has become a receptacle for everything that people can’t think what to do with.  It is often the negative pick in a MRF, so becomes the place where contaminants gather.  A recent spate of fires on UK stock yards testify to the increasing presence of batteries in the recovered paper.

Quality output

The answer is not to abandon mixed paper as a saleable resource, but rather to work to improve the quality of the output from a collection system that has lost direction.  The easy option of comingling is not the right option, nor is burning valuable recyclable fibre.  A message to councils from service and machine suppliers to ‘keep it simple’ won’t cut it either.  The evidence is that high quality outputs are dependent on some form of source separation such as dual stream collections, because modern MRFs cannot isolate high quality recyclates from completely mixed streams.

This is why the CPI’s Our Paper project is seeking to help Councils understand the implications of the choices they make when creating their collection systems.  We know that paper and board need to be separated from other recyclables at source because machinery can’t reliably remove contaminants to an acceptable degree. We know also that valuable fibre that could otherwise be recycled is lost in the sorting process.

It is the contamination of fibre, and not an absence of markets that makes mixed papers difficult to sell.  We agree that machinery has its place, and can add value, but it should be used to help separate different grades of paper and board once it has been collected, not to try to produce a silk purse from a sow’s ear after material is already contaminated.


It cannot be the consequence of policy that we worsen or undermine the quality of reusable resources and if necessary the Government must legislate to ensure collection systems that minimise contamination. The challenge for both machine manufacturers and waste collectors alike, is to make something that is saleable in all conditions in global markets.

“Material must be kept uncontaminated until it can be sorted.”

Simon Weston

To do this, material must be kept uncontaminated until it can be sorted.  Encouraging councils to believe that machinery can replace proper engagement with the public is misleading, and the consequence may be that a material that has undergone an expensive recovery process is considered only good for burning.  Keeping fibre separate is the answer, that way perfectly recyclable resources will find a proper, environmentally sound home.

Related links: Our Paper 

Note: The articles below are referred to by Simon Weston in his Opinion piece.

BCP backs ‘fully commingled’ service

North Warwickshire opts to end twin-stream recycling

‘Keep recycling simple’ urges TOMRA

Coventry approves plans for regional MRF



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