Material quality is usually mentioned in relation to household collections and exports, referring to contamination of material and its cleanliness. In fact, this is not the only issue when it comes to quality because different grades are often mixed together, needing to be separated out along the collection chain as the material reaches the reprocessor.
For cardboard this is a pressing issue, according to Mark Lyndon’s commercial director Paul Briggs. He believes the quality of UK OCC fibre has decreased in recent years because the OCC is being diluted by other grades of material.
“The problem that is brought up time and time again is about three plastic bottles being found in a bale of paper. But I’m [more] worried about the fibre quality.”
He says: “The Environment Agency talks a lot about getting the quality right before you export material so people do not break the law, which is right. But there are other issues.
“The problem that is brought up time and time again is about three plastic bottles being found in a bale of paper. But I’m [more] worried about the fibre quality.
“We really saw OCC quality go down five years ago. Before then, UK OCC bales were 98% OCC. The UK imports most of its OCC because it imports goods from other countries, which are packaged in good quality boxes. Because the paper market has become a seller’s market, it has meant that people are managing to sell mixed cardboard bales in place of 98% OCC.”
Briggs believes that the newer waste management companies are a factor in the reduction of fibre quality. He says: “Some of the MRFs are not taking out the OCC as a separate grade, and are instead leaving it mixed in with the box board and newspaper, which do not have the same fibres.
“They tend to do this in Europe and have a mix of 80/20, although it is probably more like 70/30.”
The quality of OCC is a serious issue for Briggs, whose parent company is Lee & Man based in China. He buys paper from all over the world for Chinese mills and knows that UK quality, which should be second best in the world, is starting to be considered as of the same quality as European material – third best.
This could hold serious problems for the UK paper market if China decides it does not have a preference for it, and will see the creation of a volatile market.
“We specify the type of material we want now as 90/10. It used to be 95/5 from the UK but we had to drop this down – and it looks as though it will drop down to 80/20 soon,” explains Briggs. “This generally means that we will buy US material [instead of] UK material because it is of the best quality.
“Chinese material is 100% OCC, but because its fibres are so weak in comparison with UK fibre, it is seen as being the same standard as 80/20.”
His message is that the debate over material quality is about the contamination of different material grades diluting fibre quality, and not just about whether the UK has source-segregated or commingled collections.
Bin manufacturer Taylor chief executive Peter Selkirk agrees. He says that plastic is sorted several times before it gets to the reprocessing stage because, usually, only one type of plastic is recycled together such as PET only or HDPE only. High grades of plastic would not be mixed.
“The point is that before the plastic goes back into the reprocessing machine, it is going to be divided into lots of different fractions,” he says. “There is this very simplistic debate going on about whether to have source-segregated or commingled collections, but actually it doesn’t necessarily matter because someone at some point in the process will have to split these materials up again and again into the different grades.”
For Selkirk, the main problem is ensuring that food waste stays separate from recyclables: “There is a need for an agreed quality standard for each grade of material. It would attract a higher price and when you buy it you can be assured that it is what it says it is.”
Briggs admits that extracting corrugated paper from the rest of the cardboard probably does cost more than leaving it in the mix. But, he says, when it comes to cutting back any suppliers, the ones that do not extract the OCC will be the first to go.
So are we looking in the wrong place when we think about increasing quality of materials? Perhaps it is time to question those people actually buying the material to see how we can ensure the UK stays at the top of the quality tree.