1 July 2019

Biffa judgment raises ‘more questions than answers’

In the wake of the guilty verdict last week relating to the export of mixed paper to China by Biffa, Simon Ellin, chief executive of the Recycling Association reasons that the case raises a number of questions.

OPINION: The judgment by a jury last week at Wood Green Crown Court that found waste management firm Biffa guilty of illegally exporting recovered mixed papers into China in 2015, raised more questions than it provided answers for.

Not least, what specifications are we working to? I have been in the industry for nearly 30 years and I still cannot look at a bale of recovered paper and categorically say yes this is compliant or no this isn’t compliant and neither can the Environment Agency and other UK regulatory bodies.


As a UK industry, the closest thing we have to an acceptable industry-wide standard is EN643, the European list of standard paper grades which was developed by industry and is accepted by paper makers.

EN643 specifies 1.5% outthrow for mixed papers. It is a material that is in demand in the UK, Europe and Asia and commands market-leading prices.

It is a material that requires no further sorting and enters the final processing at the mill in a just-in-time manner with de minimis environmental risk, so where’s the problem? In my opinion the agency has declined to work with industry to help us define standards that we can work within.  As far back as 2005, we put a proposed standard to the Agency. The appeal judge in the 2011 Ideal Waste Paper case recommended that the Agency engages with industry to develop guidance and still nothing has been forthcoming.

The recovered paper industry is not a perfect science, explains Simon Ellin of the Recycling Association


Way back in the dark ages, I did an Environmental Science degree and a PhD because I cared about the environment long before environmental matters became mainstream and I have been in the critically important resource recovery sector ever since. I care passionately about the work I undertake and the partners who I work with to achieve the objectives we think are right and are set by UK government and Europe.


The recovered paper industry is not a perfect science and the supply chain up to the point of processing is a broken one. Estimates put the average level of contamination in the recycling bin at least at 20%. For example, Biffa estimates that it has 7 million nappies a year arriving at Edmonton alone.

With regard to contamination generally, who is responsible for that? Where is the duty of care up the supply chain? Are local councils to blame for allowing this to happen? Is UK government to blame for reducing funding for recycling that has contributed to inappropriate collection systems and inadequate communications budgets? Should there be tougher action over the producers of the unrecyclable materials that contaminate our recycling systems?


The point I am making is an obvious one. We’re all in this together and until we find solutions that repairs these links in the supply chain, then are the processors going to continue to take the can (pun intended) for the broken supply chain? Given this judgment, can they take huge risks to their businesses and continue to export materials to an undefined standard? Can these facilities actually afford to continue to process in the same manner or do they shut the doors? Or do they reject all contaminated loads entering the system?

Whatever the outcome, the solution is not to jump into the courtroom. The regulator has a responsibility to work with industry, to form partnerships, to issue guidance and to help deliver UK government’s ambitious targets. We at The Recycling Association are here to facilitate this process.


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