Restrictions on exports of waste to China could see mixed-paper, which would have previously been exported for recycling, burnt in energy recovery facilities in the UK, a leading industry figure has warned.
The claim was made by Jacob Hayler, executive director of the Environmental Services Association (ESA), during questioning by MPs.
Mr Hayler was giving evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee on Tuesday (30 January) over the likely impact of proposals by the Chinese government to prevent the import of poor quality recovered material from countries including the UK, into its ports.
Mr Hayler was quizzed by Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, who questioned if sending recovered fibre to China is sustainable, particularly in light of the action by Chinese authorities.
The MP remarked she is “still surprised that the UK is still so complacent” about expecting much of its waste to go to China.
Mr Hayler replied that it is not sustainable to be collecting material for which “there are not available end markets”, and explained that creating stronger domestic demand could help, whilst warning that sending material to energy recovery facilities is likely to be a viable short term option.
He added: “In the near term, we might find that of the mixed papers that we create, we can sort it so that some can go into a grade that can be exported or used in recycling options, but for some of it we might find that we need to use it as a renewable fuel, because it does come from renewable sources. In the future, we might find that a lot of this organic biogenic material could be fermented and turned into a feedstock for the chemicals industry. We need to think about how the base agenda links to the Defra agenda and incentivise.”
Expanding on the comments to letsrecycle.com today, Mr Hayler added that it is becoming “increasingly clear” that China has taken significant capacity out of the global market.
“Other markets will struggle to replace this in the short term,” he said. “In this context, it is increasingly likely that some materials collected for recycling across Europe will end up in landfill or energy from waste facilities.
“Here in the UK we should take this opportunity to reconsider whether weight-based targets which prioritise quantity over quality are the best approach. We may find that sending lower grade fibres to energy from waste plants is the most sustainable solution both from an environmental and economic perspective.”
Simon Weston, director of raw materials at the Confederation of Paper Industries (CPI), agreed that energy recovery is likely to be the only short term option available for some lower quality material grades.
Speaking to letsrecycle.com, he said: “I can’t see any other short term option should it not be possible to go elsewhere. The UK-based paper industry is consuming 3 million tonnes a year, and it increased the amount of material it processed by about 10% last year.
“We are doing our best to support our supply base in dealing with this issue but we have become so reliant on sending material of questionable quality to China it is hard to see how a move to energy from waste won’t be necessary”.
Burning materials that have been collected for recycling, will be seen as a controversial particularly as the waste hierarchy, which is designed to ensure that all waste material is treated via the route which has the best environmental outcome, is enshrined in law.
Waste collection firms are keen to avoid sending recyclable material to energy from waste facilities, particularly if it is possible to produce a saleable commodity. For mixed papers, operators are increasing their sorting capacity, in order to take advantage of emerging South East Asian markets.
On the plastics front, there are already indications that lower grade materials including carrier bags, jazz film and silage wrap, for which demand has plummeted, have begun to be used as feedstock for refuse derived fuels (RDFs).
“You can’t give 80:20 film away,” one plastics recycler told letsrecycle.com last week, adding that RDF is likely to be the most viable outlet for lower grade films ‘within a matter of months’.