The way that paper recycling is changing reflects this. As more economic power moves eastwards, traditional export markets for paper and card (commonly called fibre) in Asia are increasingly setting more stringent quality restrictions — and in some cases banning certain classes of imports altogether. In this increasingly hyper-connected world, a global issue is now landing on a pavement near you, with the UK local authorities responsible for kerbside collections. Unless they adapt to this change, there’s a danger that they’ll get caught out and end up sending paper and card into waste rather than recycling it. The bottom-line need for local authorities to improve their methods and quality of output could be a positive, but the cost implications given the wider context of austerity are daunting.
China has been the world’s biggest paper recycler and as its economy has grown, it has taken up a vast amount of global fibre and in the years up until 2017 more than a two thirds of the UK’s total fibre exports. But since 2017, China has been at the forefront of changing standards across traditional markets when the country decided to reject what they called ‘foreign garbage’. Its National Sword initiative has been at the heart of this effort. National Sword is a co-ordinated programme to improve the grade of a variety of recyclable materials. As part of this programme, China decided that it would ban 24 different grades of waste, including unsorted mixed papers. The rationale seems straightforward enough: the Chinese government stated that ‘We found that large amounts of dirty waste, or even hazardous waste, are mixed in the solid waste that can be used as raw materials. This polluted China’s environment seriously.’
In effect, China has stated that it no longer wants to be the dumping ground of the world — and it now has the economic clout to change the rules not just in its favour, but also in favour of its environment and the safety of its citizens. In order to meet China’s new standards, it’s clear that UK local authorities need to improve the quality of the commodity that they’re sending: fibre must be sorted and uncontaminated. If they fail to meet these standards then a total ban is on the cards (excuse the pun) in 2020.
In the meantime, while local authorities play catch-up, many in the paper recycling industry hoped that other emerging markets would take up the slack. This has already taken place to some degree: a drop of 40% in fibre exports to China in 2018 has mainly been taken up by other Asian markets.* But the reality is that many of these other economies are following the same path as China: Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam have all taken steps to stop poor quality fibre imports. They have expressed concerns over material quality and begun to restrict the volumes that can be accepted.
Taken together, this should sound a very loud klaxon to all local authorities and recycling businesses in the UK. And the key message is this: ‘unless you revolutionise the quality of your output, there’s a very real risk that your fibre will have no end market’. So really the klaxon is shouting: ‘Wake up, before it’s too late!’.
But the radical changes that are needed for paper and card collected with glass, cans and plastics come at a cost. Estimates suggest that the extra effort needed to sort dry recyclable materials in material recovery facilities (MRFs) — and to deal with contamination contained within it to the level demanded by these new regulations — would cost individual local authorities as much as £500,000 each per year**.
So what should local authorities do? There’s one clear answer: they have to do what it takes to provide high quality collected paper and card through separate collections. The benefit is that by making the investment to ensure a better secondary commodity, the market will be much more open to local authorities and the rates paid for the commodity will be proportionally greater. So, rather than aiming for the lowest common denominator i.e. ‘Who will buy our mouldy old potatoes?’, the question becomes instead, ‘We’ve got some lovely spuds here; do you fancy trying them?’ This means that rather than worrying about restrictions, UK local authorities may have a much wider and better remunerated choice over who to choose as their export partner, or even a UK-based re-processor.
The reality is that failing to improve fibre quality is like King Cnute standing against the incoming tide. The tide has turned and the world of recycling has changed. It means that local authorities have either to adapt to the new world or simply fail to meet the recycling targets set for them. In a world where action to mitigate the impacts of climate change, including the need for recycling, are being prioritised more and more, the idea of doing nothing is simply not an option. The time to act is now.
Visit www.ourpaper.org.uk to book a free consultation from the Our Paper team. WRAP also provides free to use resources and support, to help make local authority waste and recycling service the best they can be. Visit www.wrap.org.uk/local-authorities for more information.