Quality counts

Written by: Editorial staff | Published:

From quality of recycled material to overhauling EPR and the PRN system, to better public education and eco-design, RWW looks at some of the solutions to what many believe is a looming crisis for UK waste management

Quality is becoming such an issue in the material reprocessing world, namely the lack of it in recyclable material, that the Recycling Association launched a Quality First campaign in September 2016.

According to the Association, the campaign was developed “to raise awareness of the need for the UK to improve the quality of its recyclate or face the possibility of declining markets for its materials”.

At the campaign launch, Simon Ellin, chief executive of the Recycling Association, said: “There is a risk to the UK recycling industry if the quality of materials collected for recycling does not improve, or gets worse.

“We are increasingly seeing that Chinese buyers, other export destinations and even UK mills are choosy about where they buy material. They have choices that they did not have before, and for the Chinese this includes their increasingly developing domestic market.

“In the UK, it is essential that we improve the quality of materials we collect for recycling, and everyone in the supply chain must take responsibility for that. This includes local authorities, retailers, recycling companies, waste management companies, exporters and even shipping lines as all of these have a legal responsibility to ensure material sent for export meets quality criteria.”

Ellin warns: “If we don’t improve quality, then there is a risk that we will start to see the UK at the bottom of the queue when it comes to purchasing decisions both in the export market and from UK buyers too.”

Pringle factor

To maintain the momentum of its campaign for Quality First, the Recycling Association held a conference last month which pulled together local authorities, material reprocessors, exporters of recyclable materials, designers as well as retailing behemoth Marks & Spencer.

Ellin points to ‘the Pringle factor’ as an example of the challenges facing material reprocessors. “Things need to change at the design stage. The Pringle container with its metal bottom, plastic lid and composite lining makes it impossible to recycle. We have to get it right at the design stage, and buyers and sellers all have a responsibility, along with local councils.”

Bemoaning the manner in which investment in the waste management infrastructure has been squandered, the chief executive adds: “We need more investment in kit like optical sorters. I see so much money being wasted, such as Eric Pickles’ fund of £250m that was intended to support councils to deliver weekly collections. It was completely and utterly wasted. We could instead have put roofs on buildings to keep materials from getting wet.”

Ellin also predicts that moisture in recyclable materials is
“a behemoth looming and at least as big a problem as quality. When materials are wet, they become fungus-ridden and bacteria-laden by the time they arrive at destinations like China. Materials have to be collected dry and stored dry. We have to up our game and find solutions, which is why we are advocating the adoption of the EN 643 standard for recycled paper.”

Echoing Ellin’s call for engagement between all the stakeholders, Wade Schuetzeberg, MD of ACN (Europe), a recovered paper supplier, says: “We need a product-driven approach involving the source as well as the processor, MRF operators and end-users. Market factors are already under way which are changing the economics of recycling.” The MD warns: “China is going to issue a new policy soon – National Sword action to protect its citizens’ health – which will affect imports of recyclable materials.”

Drivers to behavioural change

On the subject of external factors, Keith Freegard, director of Axion Recycling, points to the Circular Economy Package, which he says is “lacking drivers to provoke behavioural change”. Schuetzeberg believes that “market forces will come into play. Unilever started changing its packaging when it found out that optical sorters don’t recognise black plastic.”

Ellin calls for material recycling facilities (MRFs) to incorporate dual streams to separate out paper and collect everything else together. “A lot of MRFs don’t have dual streams,” says the CEO, before adding: “They shouldn’t disappear, but they should evolve.”

Wayne Hemingway MBE, founder of Hemingway Design, believes that change can only come “from the top of a company”. He describes how his staff have adopted the re-use philosophy engendered by him and his wife, Gerardine. “We make things last because it is the right thing to do. Everything in our home is either upcycled or recycled,” says the designer, who with his wife founded fashion brand Red or Dead in 1982.

“How did we allow things like carbon black plastic trays to happen? If the public knew that carbon black trays can’t be recycled;
it shocks me. They would think everyone in the industry is stupid. Social media should be harnessed to embarrass companies who produce products that are not recyclable,” opines Hemingway.

Nick Brown, head of sustainability at Coca-Cola Enterprises, believes two things are needed. “Companies need to better understand what happens through the chain. Retailers are being asked by customers why products are not recyclable. We need a proper review of extended producer responsibility (EPR) that includes more of an incentive to look at eco-design.”

Turning to consumer behaviour, Hemingway observes: “We have lost some of the willingness to pause and use something that takes longer. How do you encourage people to pause and value the activity as opposed to the time that is taken? How can consumers be encouraged to consider the value of taking the longer route of going around thrift shops and finding something interesting? People are time-poor. One of the challenges is that consumers think only of convenience and saving time. How do we row back? Do we have to start afresh and design something new?”

Brown at Coca-Cola again: “It’s important for people to be able to look for alternatives, they should have an incentive. Getting consumers to understand complicated issues is challenging.”

ACN (Europe)’s MD disagrees that consumers can’t instigate change: “Legislation is not the only thing that introduces change. It comes from consumers who vote by their spend.”

Andrew Bird, chair of LARAC (Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee) also believes that you have to “take things back to the start”. He says: “Plastics are too complicated and I don’t see why we have to have so many polymers. For instance, a bottle can be recycled, but not the top. Those are the areas we need to concentrate on. The other thing is that once the product gets into the waste management stream, there are little options. Nobody knows how to minimise products.”

Bird believes there should be “a serious debate about pay as you throw. Commercial organisations change their habits, so why shouldn’t we consider that for householders even though it’s a ‘no go’ area politically? It will focus people’s minds.”

The LARAC chair urges all sides of the debate to “get away from the blame culture that we have been seeing over the past few years. Local authorities are just one part of the chain, and I would like to see retailers along with reprocessors singing off the same hymn sheet so there is consistency.”

Bird also takes issue with weight-based targets. “Moving forward, I hope we move away from simply weight-based targets. It’s starting to change, although devolved governments still use them.”

He adds: “I am an advocate of an extended producer responsibility (EPR) system and would like to see more producers taking responsibility. We have to change the way we currently look at services and the way it’s financed.”

Packaging Recovery Notes

Looking at one of the mechanisms currently in use and which in recent months has received a great deal of criticism, Coca-Cola’s head of sustainability says: “The current PRN scheme is not going to achieve more ambitious quantity and quality outcomes; whereas a reformed PRN scheme could make a meaningful contribution towards the circularity of all packaging materials. However, it requires significant political will.”

Shortcomings of the PRN system, according to Coca-Cola’s Brown, include low industry contributions. “The system is opaque on what the monies are used for; it doesn’t support more standardised collection models; it doesn’t support eco-design or communications campaigns for the use of secondary materials; and it makes no contribution to tackling litter.” Despite government’s current focus on Brexit, Brown says there are drivers for change. These include the EC economy package, Defra’s litter strategy, the Environmental Audit Committee inquiry, the Welsh Assembly’s waste strategy review, along with increased awareness of littering and marine littering issues.

Kevin Vyse, head of packaging innovation technology at M&S, believes strongly in the power of education. “We are seeing increasingly more people coming into the UK who have no recycling interest so we have to re-educate.” Vyse also bemoans the lack of a cohesive approach. “We need a tzar in the middle; it could have been WRAP, it could be Defra, it could be a minister.”

Focusing on plastic, Vyse urges: “Let’s not demonise plastic, let’s recognise its value. The board industry is now managing their resource and it has become a sustainable material that is managed by FSC, introduced in the 1970s. It can be done. It is taking that thinking and applying it to other materials. Should there be a plastic/polymers stewardship scheme? ”

While admitting “this is a long way off and we might not see it for four to five years”, M&S’s head of packaging innovation technologies says “it is a worthy ambition”, before adding: “If the public sees a manifestation of recycled materials in action, the consumer is more likely to become engaged.”

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