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Environmental cost of not raising the quality

Time for quality it most certainly is. We need to navigate a way out of the entrenched positions that differing stakeholders have taken up in the commingled vs. source separated debate. The focus has to be on the quality of materials collected and not necessarily on the methodology. MRW’s campaign objectives are common sense and I welcome them as a potential way forward for us all.

I would like to give you a paper recycler’s (or reprocessor’s) perspective on this debate. However, I do believe the quality and contamination issues will be echoed by those who specialise in reprocessing other materials.

Paper is a fibre-based product and a paper mill cannot make new paper from non-fibrous inputs. Fact. Anything in a delivery of recovered paper that is non-fibrous is effectively waste.


In common with other paper reprocessors our known preference is for source separated material. It is true that Smurfit Kappa Recycling has a source separated collection infrastructure in place with local authorities and businesses, but in this debate that is not really the point. With mills in Birmingham and Kent, we need around 500,000 tonnes of material each year for reprocessing. As long as we can source the amount and quality of material we need, we are to a degree collection methodology agnostic.

What is the point of collecting recyclates? Is it to maximise the collection, or to optimise the efficient use of resources? Here is a fundamental fact that in my opinion is all too often lost in the current debate about collection methods:- it is only when materials collected for recycling are actually used in place of more energy-intensive raw materials (such as fibre derived from forestry) that actual benefits are derived.

Paper mills whether in the UK, China or anywhere else in the world want the same quality of material as MRW has already highlighted. For too long poor quality material has been exported as an easy option for its disposal. This seems counterintuitive when there is already a market for material in this country and we are also importing higher quality material from other countries. We should also consider the significant financial and carbon cost of unnecessary shipping.

Paper is a fibre-based product and a paper mill cannot make new paper from non-fibrous inputs. Fact. Anything in a delivery of recovered paper that is non-fibrous is effectively waste. This waste will be transported from the producer or householder, potentially sorted through a materials recovery facility (MRF), baled or bulked, transported to the paper mill (possibly on the other side of the world), and then disposed of (perhaps directly to landfill); all with a significant environmental, carbon and economic cost.

The nature of a product’s use, and the means of its recovery from the waste stream will lead to some degree of contamination and we accept this. The real debate about collection methodology needs to be centred not on simple models of cost during the collection phase, but the overall impact of excessive contamination on the full recycling process, including the waste produced at the reprocessor. High levels of contamination lead to a number of extremely negative environmental outcomes, including emissions associated with transporting residual waste; lost opportunities for recycling and inefficiencies at the reprocessor.

According to the Confederation of Paper Industries (CPI) 8.77 million tonnes of paper were recovered from the UK waste stream for recycling in 2008, with 3.92 million tonnes recycled in UK domestic paper mills and 4.85 million tonnes exported for recycling (3.74 million tonnes of this to the Far East).

“Recovered Paper Sourcing and Quality for UK End Markets” (PAS 105) calls for a 2% maximum limit on non-fibrous elements of recovered paper grades for UK mills. Taken together, the maximum permitted non-fibrous content within recovered paper collected for recycling in 2008 from the UK was 175,000 tonnes.

That is an enormous amount of waste, but paper mills acknowledge and expect a degree of contamination from non-fibrous elements within the recovered paper stream and have designed systems to deal with it. This allowance was developed to allow non-paper items already attached to the paper products during its life (staples, envelope windows, tape, non-paper inserts, glues and such like) to be accepted. They are not designed to cope with contamination from unattached materials that are not sorted or removed during collection. This is where full co-mingled/MRF sorting systems currently create real difficulties by comparison with source segregated and vehicle sort systems.

Full co-mingled collection systems, followed by MRF sorting, contaminate recovered paper with other materials, and the sorting process does not properly clean the residual paper stream. These systems tend to leave significant levels of non-fibrous content within recovered paper and consequently these outputs are sometimes only saleable on export markets, if at all.

It is frightening to think what might be the environmental consequences of shipping high levels of, what is in effect, waste around the world for disposal. It will certainly reduce the environmental gains actually derived from the recycling of the useable fibre. Even the 2% non-fibrous content acceptable under PAS105 equated to 74,000 tonnes of waste sent to the Far East in 2008. Levels of contamination of between 5 and 10 per cent are not uncommon in commingle collected recovered fibre and at this level the volumes, costs and environmental impact of the waste are mind boggling.

Contamination of recovered paper by other materials streams such as plastic bottles, tin cans, glass and textiles consigns these materials to residual waste as the paper pulping, screening and cleaning process effectively destroys their potential to be recycled. This means that there is, in effect, a double-loss of benefit: not only has carbon and cost been used to get the contaminants to the wrong reprocessor, but they have cost the right reprocessor the opportunity to effectively recycle the material.

A paper mill designed to reprocess recovered paper with a maximum contamination content of 2% can quickly have problems when excess contamination hits the machines. Energy and water is wasted in trying to pulp and sort non-fibrous matter, stoppages and breakages within the process start to occur, pulpers block and screens wear out, all impacting negatively on the efficiency of the paper machine and increasing the carbon outputs from the mill.

These are some of the actual impacts of poor quality recyclate on global industry and the environment. Poor quality does not simply represent a cost to the collector in what the buyer might pay for the material. It is undermining the whole environmental debate about the benefits of recycling. It is wrong to assume that simply because something is collected, benefits are accrued and, equally, that an increase in the level of collection automatically leads to a linear increase in these benefits.

If MRF technology can indeed be developed to deliver the quality levels that we and other reprocessors need, then of course that is to be encouraged. The crux of the matter is the extent to which MRF processes can be refined. Our mills accept PAS105 specification material and as making paper is our business, we will always prefer to take the best quality material available.

We must not allow operational expediency simply to pass costs down the line; this defeats the object of what we are all trying to achieve.

Simon Weston is managing director of Smurfit Kappa Recycling

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