OPINION: Simon Weston, Director of Recovered Paper at the Confederation of Paper Industries, writes of an urgent need to communicate the message that PPE cannot be recycled and needs to be disposed of correctly.
At this time of national crisis, one cannot praise enough those key workers who are putting themselves in harm’s way saving lives on the front line in hospitals and care homes. Equally, workers who provide services to the public, such as those collecting waste and sorting recycled materials are worthy of our recognition and gratitude, because without them society would grind to a halt.
The majority of the public are also playing their part by socially distancing, self-isolating and by sustaining key industrial sectors such as the paper industry by continuing to recycle vital raw materials. Reports from some local authorities suggest collections of dry recyclables are up 20%. This, however, has not been without its challenges because material sorting facilities have found the going tough, with self-isolation and social distancing taking a toll on machine speed and therefore the overall processing capacity of individual sites and ultimately the entire system.
The paper industry is delighted that the public has been so willing to recycle and has been brilliantly supported by local authorities and their service providers, but it is critical that the quality of the material collected is maintained, particularly as so much of the supply chain is at full stretch, providing little margin for breakdown or error.
Of real concern in the past few weeks has been a disturbing increase in the amount of used Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) that has been wrongly included in household collected mixed paper rather than being properly disposed of in general waste. Items such as latex gloves and composite face masks are increasingly common, with other items such as used sanitary products and sharps also present.
When used PPE is discarded in recycling it places essential, frontline workers at unnecessary risk, because those who collect, sort and handle these materials are potentially exposed to the virus. Scientific opinion on the life cycle of the virus and its potential to survive on different surfaces in different conditions is still developing so the safest option must be to avoid all contact in the sorting process.
Should this material reach a paper mill it cannot be recycled and passes directly to the mill waste stream without harm, as the recycling process will account for residual virus. The presence of PPE, sanitary products, sharps and the like are however particularly unpleasant and unnecessary
As the UK moves out of lockdown, it is likely that citizens will be required to use PPE more widely. The possibility therefore is that this type of unwanted contamination will increase, with continued consequent risks to those collecting, handling and using paper for recycling.
To prevent this, the secondary raw material supply chain needs to come together urgently and use all available communication channels to help the public understand the risks associated with the incorrect disposal of PPE, and its potential impact on fellow citizens working in the recycling industry. People should know that PPE cannot be recycled and that it needs to be disposed of correctly. The challenge for those involved in recovery and reprocessing is how do we do this?