Looks good on paper

Written by: Simon Weston | Published:

The UK’s paper recycling performance is laudable, but work lies ahead in areas such as improving raw material quality and, as with everything else at the moment, adapting to Brexit, the Confederation of Paper Industries’ Simon Weston reports

The UK’s recovery of paper for recycling remained broadly the same in 2016 as it has been for the past eight years, with final figures published by the Confederation of Paper Industries (CPI) showing total collection marginally down on the previous year at 7.82 million tonnes.

Some commentators have suggested this confirms that collection and recycling has stagnated, but in fact, paper recycling rates have continued to rise as we collect a higher proportion of available material, demonstrating continuing improvement but also the impact of changing lifestyles and social trends on the use of paper and board products in modern society.

A sharp drop in the consumption of newsprint (20% in the past five years) has reduced the overall weight of paper and board being collected by local authorities. This has caused the composition of mixed papers, which still comprise the largest fraction of paper and board produced from households, to change as newspapers have, to some extent, been replaced by board packaging from convenience foods, online shopping deliveries and the like.

This evolution looks set to continue and will probably bring further changes to both paper manufacturing infrastructure in the UK and the raw material recovery chain that supports it.

Collections of recovered paper in 2016 started very strongly, with the first quarter promising a record year, but volumes fell away as the year progressed and, in the end, the total finished at around eight million tonnes, as it has been since 2009.

Consumption at domestic mills fell just under 10% year on year to close at 3.02 million tonnes, illustrating the impact of machine closures and of light weighting. Exports of paper for recycling were marginally up on the previous year at 4.93 million tonnes, with demand being bolstered by the devaluation of the pound following the Brexit vote in June. Chinese papermakers consumed 3.7 million tonnes, or 47% of the total material collected
in the UK. The bankruptcy of Hanjin Shipping in August impacted the market towards year end, as container shortages squeezed prices upwards, but this seemed to have little effect
on demand.

Nearing the limit?

The CPI calculates the total recycling rate of all paper and board consumed in the UK to be 68% in 2016, similar to that in 2015. With an estimated 20% of fibrous material being unrecoverable, the overall recycling performance of the industry continues to be impressive and could imply we are nearing the limit of what is sensibly achievable.

In late 2016, the government published its regular update of national recycling performance (Defra, UK Statistics on Waste, December 2016). While household recycling fell for the first time since 2010, the recovery of paper and board continued to improve and the calculated recycling rate for paper and board packaging in 2014 was 73.1%, and will likely be close to 80% in 2015.

During the year, WRAP was commissioned to update the government estimate of paper and board packaging placed on the market, in preparation for the setting of national recycling targets for 2018-2020. Their Paper and Card Flow 2020 Report published in mid-year estimated the amount of paper-based packaging in the UK market in 2014 was 4.75 million tonnes, an increase of 860,000 tonnes or 22% on previous estimates. The effect of this was to reduce historical recycling performance and reset baseline assumptions for the future.

This study was undertaken in parallel with an exercise being completed by the Environment Agency to look at ways of updating and simplifying the processes and protocols for accreditation for reprocessors under the packaging waste regulations.

In concert with this, the CPI initiated a collaborative industry sampling exercise between members of the CPI, the Recycling Association and the Resource Association to determine the composition of mixed papers, which revealed they now averagely comprise nearly 35% packaging.

After consultation, it was decided to increase the amount of PRN/PERN that can be claimed from mixed papers from 12.5% in 2015 to 34.5% in 2017. A transitional allowance of 23% was agreed for 2016. Consequently, the apparent future recycling rate for paper and board packaging will rise, with the likelihood that it will reach 85% in 2017.

As we approach the technical limits of current sorting systems, the marginal recovery of paper will lead to further dis-amenity costs of contamination for reprocessors. It is time to focus on collection methods that satisfy a longer-term quality imperative.

Hitherto, the nation has played fast and loose with the requirement for “high quality” recycling, so it is encouraging that several initiatives were launched in 2016, aimed at improving raw material quality.

WRAP’s Consistency Project is based on market analysis and makes a strong business case for the rationalisation of collection systems and the source separation of recyclate, arguing that all parts of the supply chain benefit from it. Its Recycling Guidelines project for local authorities also focuses on consistency within collection systems by standardising what should go into recycling bins. Clarity and consistency are everything if we are to educate the public and improve quality.

Third party markets

Moreover, the UK collection infrastructure, and the prices that support it, are now very dependent on third-party markets, making it vital 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 domestic reprocessors, and reduce the vulnerability of the collection infrastructure to market forces.

One of the areas of interest raised by the Brexit vote is the future status of the Circular Economy Package (CEP) currently under negotiation within the institutions of the European Union. At its core is an opportunity to reset current UK collection systems.

The waste management sector and local authorities are much in favour of a structure that passes funding more directly from producers into the collection system. Whatever the outcome of these discussions, it should not be the responsibility of producers to subsidise the errors of the past, either to rectify inherently poor collection methodology or support flawed investment decisions. It is certain that if a greater element of cost is to be passed into the packaging supply chain, then producers will move to exercise greater control over the outputs of the system, which might make for an uncomfortable transitional period for the current stakeholders.

The vote to leave the European Union has sharpened government focus on the future shape of the UK economy and opportunities to create jobs and wealth. Paper remains a sustainable, renewable, low-carbon, environmentally friendly solution for a wide range of social applications; as a medium for communication; for hygiene use, and as protection for products. Over the past 15 years, government carbon and energy policies have unwittingly led to de-industrialisation and have resulted in a period of retrenchment within the UK paper sector, with the UK becoming the biggest net importer of paper products globally.

Government is now looking at ways to rebalance the economy, develop the bio economy and become more resource-efficient, so the paper industry potentially stands on the cusp of real opportunity. The barriers to greater investment should not be underestimated,
but with the right industrial and economic incentives there is no reason why elements
of domestic production cannot be restored and enhanced.

The CPI is working closely with other associations and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to develop a sector plan as a response to the government’s recent green paper, Building our industrial strategy, published in January.

Whatever the outcome of the Brexit negotiations, it is likely that the CEP will influence the direction of travel of future UK environmental policy – up to 80% of UK Environmental Law is founded in EU legislation. The “hollowing out” of Defra in the past five years, coupled with an
undoubtedly full programme for parliament in the foreseeable future and the need to keep UK policy aligned with the EU for trade purposes, suggests that the CEP is likely to be adopted, at least in part, if only because there is little capacity within government to develop an alternative.

It will impact the paper packaging supply chain in the coming years by putting focus on product design and waste minimisation, and offering an opportunity to exploit the inherently sustainable and bio-based nature of fibre-based products, as society looks to exploit renewable, environmentally friendly and inherently recyclable resources.

Simon Weston is director of raw materials at the Confederation of Paper Industries

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