Dealing with contamination in recycling

Written by: Niels Flierman | Published:

DS Smith’s focus on quality recycling comes from our need to source clean paper fibres to supply our paper mills which, in turn, feed our packaging plants.

We’re one of Europe’s leading recyclers, managing more than five million tonnes of fibre every year and as a result need quality fibres to power the supply cycle.

Our paper mills can only make paper from paper – not plastics, glass, metal, or any other recyclable material that can sometimes end up in paper and card recycling collections. This is why we are strong advocates of the separation of recycling steams at the point of collection. Early segregation of recyclables gives us the best chance of ensuring the highest quality of fibres.

Our closed loop recycling capabilities mean that once a cardboard box is discarded, we can collect it through our recycling division, recycle it at our paper division’s mills, and then turn the recycled paper into new boxes at our Packaging plants. This is all done inside the DS Smith Group within 14 days of the discarded box being collected.

Dealing with contamination

Contamination in paper recycling streams introduces a number of challenges to our production process. Some are straightforward impacts on production: glass in a bale of paper can break our mill machinery or plastics can be hard to separate out in the paper making process and then can get caught on moving machinery parts.

This leads to downtime in our production process while we remove the contaminant, which costs machine maintenance, work hours, and lost time.

But there are also less immediate costs to be considered. Heavily contaminated paper quite often cannot be recycled at all. In such cases, papers can end up in waste to energy or even landfill. Not only do both these options fall further down the waste hierarchy than recycling, they can also result in added environmental and financial cost.

So, contamination in paper for recycling means:

  • lost value in recycling revenues,
  • wasted journeys,
  • production downtime,
  • machine repairs,
  • higher production costs,
  • a valuable resource lost from the recycling process.

These are not the only concerns. Every time we must reject material at a recycling depot or a mill because it is contaminated, there are added administration costs for the business and for our customers. Invoice queries, photographic evidence, the administration surrounding rejected tonnage – it all adds up.

In paper mills, depending on their production capabilities, costs can run to many hundreds of thousands of pounds per year.

It’s costly and inefficient for our customers to provide us with contaminated fibres, and it’s a complex problem to deal with once we’ve discovered the contamination. In this case, prevention is clearly better than cure, so a focus on quality needs to be applied right at the start of the recycling process.

The benefits of separate collections

Limiting the opportunity for contamination in recycling collections benefits our customers as well as our paper mills. Our customers will realise the full value of their material, and we receive clean fibre that we can put straight into our production processes.

We can limit the impact of contamination long before we start the physical paper making process.

Fibre that is separated from other materials at source has a much lower chance of being contaminated by any other materials. Mixing recyclables together relies on effective and efficient sorting further down the line.

Paper fibres are particularly prone to contamination from other recyclables. Glass – especially when it shatters into small fragments – is a prime example. Food is another issue in paper fibre recycling streams, particularly oily and greasy food which can have a detrimental effect on the quality of the fibres.

If recyclables are collected already segregated, then the effort to unsort material streams is saved, and the likelihood is that the material will be of a higher quality.

But it’s not a perfect world

In an ideal world, as recyclers, we would want all material to reach us contamination-free. In reality, dealing with contamination in recycling streams is an everyday occurrence. Segregating recycling streams at the point of collection does help to improve quality, but in truth, a myriad of variables can affect the quality of materials presented for recycling.

So, once material for recycling reaches us we deploy a robust quality monitoring system. We have a process of supply assessment that uses European Paper Standard EN643 as a basis. Our teams work with our recycling customers and explain the requirements of the standard – and we constantly monitor material flows from our customers to ensure that only the right quality material is supplied to our mills.

A strategy for the future

A reliable source of high-quality fibre is at the heart of our paper and packaging production. It plays a key role in DS Smith being a leading supplier of sustainable packaging to some of Europe’s biggest brands.

Clean, uncontaminated material also allows much greater production efficiency. It ensures that all paper intended for recycling is actually recycled – not sent to energy from waste or landfill. And it ensures quick, efficient production processes with no downtime or machine damage. It also reduces the administrative, financial, and environmental burdens associated with contaminated material.

Eliminating contamination is the most sustainable solution – but it remains a challenge for the industry. To promote less contamination and greater efficiency, we need consistent collection methods.

The industry and its stakeholders must commit to a single standard – such as WRAP’s Framework for Greater Consistency for Household Recycling in England.

Introducing a two-stream system (with food collected separately) means that all households would see paper and card collected as one stream, and plastic packaging, metals, glass and cartons are collected as a separate stream. This would help the efforts to recover cleaner fibre from domestic recycling streams, thus easing the burden of contamination in the paper making process.

Niels Flierman is operations director at DS Smith.


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