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Feature: EA puts commingling under the spotlight

Crisis. What crisis? The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Environment Agency (EA) may have been making public proclamations about the quality of recycled collections, but local authorities say that neither has addressed them on the issues and the boroughs believe they are meeting required sorting standards.

The contention point is the wrongs and rights of commingled versus source-segregated kerbside collections, an issue that was raised earlier this year when the EA expressed concerns over paper exports. An estimated 1.86 million tonnes of paper was sent abroad for recovery in 2003, but this figure rose sharply to nearly 2.58 million tonnes in 2004 - accounting for almost two-fifths of UK paper recovery.

Local authority collections are increasingly generating more and more lower-grade material; and while there is a strong market in the Far East, especially China, a lack of investment in the UK has led to the closure of many board-making mills. However, the EA believes that there should not be any card in mixed paper and that newspapers and magazines should be separated, and it has warned that exports will cease if authorities go down this route.

The situation is particularly pertinent to local authorities in London, where many boroughs have their kerbside material sorted at materials recycling facilities (MRFs). The EA's stance over the export of materials overseas for reprocessing could potentially lead to MRF operators having to slow down their intake of commingled material, leaving supplies from hundreds of thousands of households unsorted.

Only recently, the North London Waste Authority - which covers Barnet, Camden, Enfield, Hackney, Harringey, Islington and Waltham Forest - said that it urgently required a new MRF to safeguard commingled recycling collections in Camden, Enfield, Haringey and Islington. It issued a report saying that three MRFs are ultimately required by the authority, each to process 100,000 tonnes annually, and "the first is required urgently".

The contended difficulties come after Defra revealed that the EA had discovered "potentially substantial amounts of waste being sent overseas, ostensibly for recovery, that do not conform with the requirement of the EU Waste Shipment Regulation".

A strongly worded missive from Defra was issued which talked of illegal exports of municipal waste to the EU and other countries and referred to "ongoing investigations".

The letter, from Sue Ellis, head of the waste management division, to waste authorities across the UK revealed that her department and the EA were concerned "about the improper and potentially illegal exports of municipal wastes to countries both within the EU and developing countries". She suggested that councils minimise the risk of being associated with this activity, and outlined ways in which local government could assure itself that any exports of waste for recycling were undertaken in compliance with the relevant legislation.

However, Lee Marshall, chairman of the Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee (LARAC), says that most local authorities remain confident that they are complying with the rules and that LARAC does not specifically advocate one approach over the other.

"I don't want to sit on the fence but we can see pros and cons in both," he says. "Our point of view is that one size does not fit all and that different situations require different methods."

Instead Marshall echoes Ellis's advice, and says it is important that authorities know where the

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