DS Smith Recycling (UK) managing director, Mat Prosser, explains to Steve Eminton how a collaborative approach to quality in fibre supply is paramount.
For Mat Prosser, managing director of DS Smith Recycling (UK), the need to achieve a high standard of quality in materials recycling has been on his agenda for many years.
Today though, with the pressures on the marketplace in the wake of China’s call for quality, the ongoing need to deliver on this – as well as to seek collaboration up and down the recycling and customer chain – has never been greater.
DS Smith Recycling (UK), which is based in Caerphilly, South Wales, is the prime supplier to parent company DS Smith’s UK paper mill at Kemsley, Kent and is also very active in the export market for used cardboard and other paper grades.
Its advocacy work on quality became evident with support for the Campaign for Real Recycling prior to 2012 and there is continuing work today through its own communications, and also with the Resource Association which has delivered the quality message nationally.
And, the question of what to do with a materials recycling facility which was inherited as part of a deal with SCA in 2012 also focused thinking on the importance of a clean fibre stream.
That MRF, in Southampton, was swiftly closed by DS Smith Recycling as it did not fit in with the company’s quality viewpoint. Since then, while looking to develop relationships with waste management companies who can deliver a high quality product for recycling through a variety of collection schemes, the strategy has been to focus on receiving source-separated material from commercial and domestic streams – albeit that it now has its own sorting lines at depots to check for quality and extract any contaminants.
With regard to local authorities and the issue of quality, he feels that commingled collections are a cost cutting solution at the domestic end, especially for local authorities under pressure. While he is not overly evangelical over kerbside sorting, acknowledging that source segregation “comes at a cost” he reasons that “it also comes with a benefit too. The model which was demonstrated by WRAP and CPI showed that with source segregated systems, this gives a commercial and sustainable benefit.”
Mr Prosser likens the idea of “quality” to the “need for high standards of health and safety across the company’s activities.”
He explains: “We are involved in a lot of acquisitions in different countries and cultures and we have to make sure that safety measures are of the highest standards everywhere. On quality too we need to get it right. For example, reaching an acceptably low level of contamination is one challenge but some materials are prohibited, full stop. For example a plastic bottle in a paper bale may be tolerated if the rest of the bale is of a good standard. But if that bottle has a top on it, then it is deemed a closed vessel prohibitive and faces rejection – along with the whole consignment. No doubt, it’s a tough challenge to meet.”
The approach, says Mr Prosser, is for DS Smith Recycling “to try and align requirements for quality, and ensure the idea of sustainability and quality is shared by our customers from retailers to local authorities to waste management companies and the mills. Manufacturers also understand the need for quality – the product comes back to them.”
He accepts that in terms of exporting to China the 0.5 contrary restrictions level is “challenging, but we and the industry want to get it right for the right reasons.”
To achieve quality the company has a range of initiatives, driven by standards closer to home and by Green Fence and similar Chinese initiatives as well.
The focus is on fibre as a commodity and a need to protect customers from food waste and other contaminants. He remarks: “We want to drive the word waste out of waste paper through delivering high quality collection services for our customers, whether that is paper, card, plastic, food or any other material we collect – ultimately we want to protect the quality of the fibre as a valuable commodity.
“Refinement of manufacturing,” says Mr Prosser, “is also driving quality, as is lightweighting – essentially requiring the same high performance from packaging but using less materials. To be able to do that we need quality recycled fibres fed into the manufacturing process – any good, lean, manufacturing process requires a quality raw material input, and making recycled packaging papers is no different.. In that respect, we have to think of customers downstream and one step up and also think of their customers.”
Looking back at China’s first action to improve the quality of recyclables coming into the country, Green Fence, Mr Prosser says now it seems as though that was just “a toe in the water, an indication of the changes coming in but unfortunately it wasn’t sustained as a process.
“China has now been a revolution – and we could see it coming. It’s revolutionary in the degree it moved ahead of EN643, the differential between the two standards is there. With China it was a very dramatic shift to 0.5% with the mixed papers ban too and restrictions on plastics and metals.
“We know that with the Chinese restrictions, and indeed our own business model to supply paper for recycling into our own and third party customer mills, we can’t accept contamination, obviously we have to operate to a level of tolerance, so I am not talking about some tape on a box. As recyclers we realise we don’t live in a perfect world, where we can always expect 100% clean material, but we do have to get the balance right.”
In China, which he has visited several times this year, Mr Prosser says the licensing regime for mills there is having a big impact. “The quarterly allocations for importing recovered fibre have focused in on the licence holders who are not up to environmental standards and such mills have been closed en masse and not given allocations. The idea of allocations for a quarter has completely changed the dynamics.”
DS Smith Recycling has worked closely with its customers in China to try and work to the new standards. This hasn’t always been easy and the company recently made the decision to recall some containers en route to Xiamen port. Since these containers were originally dispatched to export there has been a tightening of port authority controls and developments in how DS Smith manages the process of sending material to China. “The decision was made, before the containers hit the port and in conjunction with our mill customer, ensuring that all material they received had come through the most robust quality procedures,” notes Mr Prosser.
“That decision only highlights our commitment to providing quality materials for recycling to all our customers. We have consciously involved ourselves in China to see what the changes were meaning and this is a challenge but out of challenge comes opportunity. We talk to the mill groups in China and are following the changing dynamics of quality.”
He adds: “A positive thing is that this is not selective, it a challenge for the whole of UK plc. For us, though, we have to make sure that our material sent to China for use in the mills is a product made to the right specification. In the UK we have put in sorting sections above what we normally do and we are adapting how we work with our supply customers to ensure the quality message gets right to the heart of the supply chain.”
A big change in the UK for DS Smith Recycling is bringing large amounts of material destined for China into DS Smith depots as an interim solution to ensure quality standards are met. “We have been setting ourselves up for that in a lean process which runs alongside the approaches adopted in our mills,” reflects Mr Prosser.
“We have adapted our process, monitor our depots and quality pinch points, photograph all our bales, and have quarantine areas for testing in our depots. We are making sure we are consistent in our standards and this is supported by engagement with our suppliers and customers and investment in communications.”
Technology is also playing a part with the use of NIR (near infrared) scanning and increased labelling of bales and loose collection of material is also an approach for some customers.
The Caerphilly head office is now home to what Mr Prosser calls a ‘Centre of excellence for export’. “We want to be world class to our customers with the continuous pursuit of excellence.”
Looking ahead, he says that he sees the emphasis on collaboration with suppliers and customers. “We desire collaboratively to come up with solutions, from the UK inspectorate seeing a quality product produced to the correct levels which is inspected and the process goes right through to the inspectorate in China and to our customers.”