2016: A year of relative stability

Written by: Simon Weston | Published:

Simon Weston, director of raw materials at the Confederation of Paper Industries, reports on the last 12 months of activity in the paper recycling sector

Despite the hiatus caused by mill closures and low prices in 2015, paper recovery started 2016 very strongly, but has since fallen back to levels of previous years, and by year end it is expected to reach close to eight million tonnes; broadly where it has been since 2009.

The Confederation of Paper Industries (CPI) calculates the total recycling rate for all paper products to be close to 70% and with a further 20% of consumed paper being unrecyclable, it is perhaps not surprising that recovery has slowed.

It certainly suggests we are close to a point where quality could diminish if we continue to strive for greater quantity.

Paper packaging recycling rates are even higher and have reached close to 85%.

Of the collected volume, CPI projects UK paper mills will consume slightly less than last year at approximately 3.1 million tonnes, while exports are expected to reach 4.9 million tonnes. Chinese papermakers are expected to consume a little over 3.6 million tonnes of UK derived fibre, or 45% of all material collected in the UK.

Domestic market prices for the bulk grades started 2016 at relatively low levels, but picked up through the year and by late summer all were showing an increase of more than £20 per tonne, moving them towards profitable territory for efficient collectors.

Demand was probably helped by the decline in the value of the pound sterling post the Brexit vote, but there were other market influencing factors, such as the bankruptcy of Hanjin Shipping and the fire at Palm Paper, that provided challenges to market stability. Despite this, prices and demand were relatively steady through the year.

UK paper collection infrastructure and the prices that support it are now highly dependent upon third party markets and this makes it increasingly important that we produce high quality secondary fibre that will be in demand no matter the prevailing economic conditions in other parts of the globe.

This is the only way to future-proof the collection infrastructure. It is therefore probably time to prioritise quality over quantity and encourage the adoption of collection and sorting methods that satisfy a longer-term imperative.

It is encouraging that several initiatives aimed at improving recovered fibre quality were launched in 2016.

For example, WRAP’s consistency project and its Recycling Guidelines for local authorities focus on consistency within collection systems.

Clarity and consistency are everything if we want to educate the public and ultimately drive performance.

Fact file: Recovered paper

  • Over 70% of the fibres used to make paper in the UK come from paper collected for recycling
  • The recycling rate for paper in the UK in 2015 was 69%
  • Demand for newsprint has reduced by nearly 40% since 2000
  • UK paper mills use over 3m tonnes of paper for recycling each year
  • More than £3bn has been invested in the paper industry in recent years
  • In recent years the industry has reduced total energy by 34% and water by 24% per tonne of paper

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