These decisions can have a significant impact on budgets, but what local authorities may be overlooking is that the value of dry recyclable materials varies enormously depending on the quality of the commodity that they are able to collect. If they improve the standard of their collections, they can significantly increase their income — after all, quality material for end re-processors increases the potential market for material. We believe that the future financial case for paper and card recycling relies on focusing on this side of the balance sheet — by grasping the opportunities that are clearly there. At the heart of this financial case is one self-evident truth: the more effectively you segregate your waste, the more value you will achieve from it.
One of the biggest reasons that this makes sense for councils specifically in relation to fibre is that the UK currently exports approximately 60% of fibre for recycling. These markets are raising their standards and starting to ban poor quality material altogether. It is quality that dictates price and broadens the potential global market opportunities for fibre.
So what does this mean for UK local authorities? It means they need to focus on collecting high quality fibre to achieve value and to ensure that it finds a market. This is vitally important as the UK competes with other countries to find outlets that already have mature collection systems of separate paper and card.
Poor quality fibre has a significant risk of not having a value, or even not finding an end market at all. The current comingling trend is a consequence of more than a decade of encouraging the public to join a race to the bottom, supported by a misguided belief that collection rates are the same as recycling rates, and MRF technology can sort anything into a quality product. The main objective has been to strive not for quality and closed loop recycling, but to make recycling easy for the public. This has been done without really thinking about the market consequences, and it has resulted in the unfortunate side-effect of householders, businesses and local authorities not truly valuing recyclables.
Collecting fibre with glass, cans and plastics results in low-quality fibre, devalues the material and restricts potential global market outlets. The cost impact on collecting comingled fibre is three-fold, comprising the:
- Cost of separation or MRF gate fee which is increasing year-on-year based on the WRAP gate fee report.*
- Loss of valuable fibre and cost of disposal of this material rather than revenue if collected separately.
- Reduced revenue for fibre material produced, (as seen on the letsrecycle.com indices).
By contrast, the separate collection of fibre creates a direct value for the material and not a cost. So ultimately poor quality costs local authorities and re-processors, making it an unattractive product for re-processors to buy for use in their manufacturing process.
However, if fibre is collected separately from other waste streams and kept clean and dry it is easier to recycle, becomes more attractive to buy and therefore has value.
The standards for UK and European paper mills are set out in the European standard EN:643.** This standard defines the classifications of different types of fibre and the acceptable contamination levels that UK and European mills can accept. If local authorities produce and specify tenders to this standard then it can go directly to a re-processor adding significant value, and does not require further sorting adding cost.
Ensuring that the materials meet these criteria clearly brings with it a number of challenges for many local authorities, but we believe that the economics will stack up. It’s up to local authorities to work closely with mills and other end re-processor markets to understand their requirements and create a product that has value and creates sustainable markets.*** It is estimated that half of all dry recyclables collected in the UK are fibre and in a marketplace that is increasingly hostile to co-mingled material, it makes sense to work on this 50% and deliver a commodity that is actively sought after by re-processors.
The Our Paper project seeks to help councils to understand the implications of the choices they make when they create their collection systems. We know that fibre needs to be separated at source because machinery can’t reliably remove other contaminants to an acceptable degree, and valuable fibre is lost as part of this process, that could otherwise have been recycled. It is the contamination of fibre, and not an absence of markets that makes fibre not have a value, and the UK needs to find markets by focusing on quality. The recycling of fibre is a complex process, with a number of different ingredients needed to make the manufacturing process work. But we believe that the most important factor of all is quality fibre. Local authorities that supply it will find that markets open up and their incomes will increase.