Simon Weston, director of raw materials at the Confederation of Paper Industries, assesses the issue of contamination and recycling.
As many drivers know to their cost, taking a short cut does not always bring a better outcome for a journey. Encountering a long queue of traffic as others try the same rat run can lead to increased frustration and stress, as well as unnecessary fuel use, pollution and noise. The hidden drawbacks of trying to beat the system can result in economic loss, and disruption to health, safety and environmental quality.
Similar ‘unforeseen’ pitfalls exist in the world of recycling collections, where many local authorities have directed residents to put all their recyclables into one container without giving adequate thought and weight to possible outcomes farther down the road.
With cuts to budgets and pressure to increase recycling rates, local authorities have increasingly turned to mixed collections, believing that residents will recycle more if they don’t have to think about the process of separating items. Unfortunately, this approach has encouraged mechanical and unmindful participation and sadly there are potential hidden economic, environmental and ultimately human costs associated with collection systems that place a premium on quantity over quality.
When a range of used household materials are placed together in one container, then cross contamination will almost certainly occur, as liquids, food, plastics and glass become intermingled. For paper, which is a major success story for the UK recycling industry, contamination of this sort is costly. Recent work conducted by the Confederation of Paper Industries (CPI) estimates that an increase of one percentage point in contamination would increase costs by about £8 million per annum across the entire UK mill system.
For a large paper reprocessor this could equate to as much as £1.25 million per percentage point increase for each 100,000 tonnes of raw material procured. These sorts of additional costs undermine the viability of domestic reprocessors when compared with foreign competitors using other material streams, and could lead to plant closures and job losses.
Hidden Costs: Where does the Burden Fall?
Unfortunately, as WRAP’s recently published final quarter 2016 data from the MRF (Material Recycling Facility) Code of Practice sampling regime shows, the level of contamination entering English MRFs is rising, and shockingly, there is an increasing number of recent examples of local authorities seeking to shift the burden of contamination onto reprocessors through contractual conditions that require buyers to accept “paper” with as much as 5, 8 or even 12% contamination.
This material must be destined for further sorting but its existence in the market reflects, at minimum, a dereliction of moral and statutory duty to deliver “High Quality Recycling” and at worst the first stage in a chain of potentially illegal activities, if materials are sold on under EN643 and misrepresented under the Sale of Goods Act, or marketed abroad rendering the seller liable for a charge of complicity in criminal activity and illegal exporting.
Mixed collections and the contaminated resources they invariably produce are the default option; easiest for operators and the public, but without regard for the onward impact of inferior quality materials. They reflect a path of least resistance, but as WRAP’s Consistency project demonstrates, there is commercial benefit to be garnered from gathering resources in a more sophisticated manner, and encouragingly, some of the through chain benefits will fall back to the collector.
More worryingly, as the recent Chinese National Sword initiative demonstrates, there is a very real risk that material that falls outside of reprocessor specifications simply won’t find a market.
This threat is amplified because the UK exports the majority of its paper for recycling into a competitive market using material collected under more progressive methodologies.
Not long ago the public saw recycling as something that concerned only committed environmentalists, but now almost every household in the land recycles something, and understands, to some degree at least, why it is necessary. Two decades ago this writer remembers running a campaign of bill-board advertising in Birmingham to encourage the city’s population to recycle paper, now almost everyone does it.
Why then is it assumed the public is too slow to learn and why are some stakeholders wedded to the idea that only commingled collection can achieve the required recycling rates? It is evident that public knowledge and opinion develops over time, particularly when supported by increased understanding of the impact on the environment of not doing so. There are few adults in this country that can disclaim knowledge of the potential threat of global warming; an issue that didn’t figure a decade ago.
Welsh and Scottish people are being helped to move towards a more sustainable future, but in England the population is widely judged unable to adapt, or to understand the wider benefits of separating and recycling precious resources by its own authorities. Moreover, there are some parts of the supply chain that rail against the injustice of price volatility or the “unfair” quality standards imposed by paper mills, which are deemed unrealistic and inconsistent. Even if this were true (and there is little evidence to support it) it is the way of the world in global commodity markets. Ultimately, the buyer always has a right to choose what, where and how they buy.
What Needs to Change?
So, is it time for a touch of reality and a wider perspective? The fact is that the direction of travel for the quality of recyclate in the UK is wrong, as WRAP’s recently published MRF data shows; whether from the perspective of its impact on the environment, the economy, or the legal and moral requirement to deliver “high quality” recycling. It is too easy to blame budget cuts, the public, manufacturers, markets or producers. The opportunity is there to find a better way and we can use the WRAP Consistency report and Recycling Guidelines as a guide to the art of the possible going forward. We need to step back and look again at the real end game.
Let’s put to one side, just for a moment (if that is possible), the obvious impact that a failure to address this issue will have on the planet. Let us consider the shorter-term risk of a loss of markets, collapsing prices and the disintegration of the waste collection infrastructure caused by the closure of foreign markets to UK recyclate, or the threat to investment, reprocessing capacity and UK jobs of poor quality raw materials. We need guaranteed access to global markets and an incentive to draw new reprocessing investment into the UK. This can only be achieved with high quality recycling and will benefit all members of the supply chain.
AUTHOR: Simon Weston, director of raw materials at the Confederation of Paper Industries, which is based in Swindon, Wiltshire. CPI represents the supply chain for paper, comprising paper and board manufacturers and converters, corrugated packaging producers, makers of soft tissue papers and collectors of paper for recycling. Website: www.paper.org.uk