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Money spent is money saved

Everyone who knows me knows that I passionately support single-stream commingled collections. But I also acknowledge the validity of other collection systems, when appropriate. It’s just that I see single stream as being appropriate for virtually any setting.

I cannot support the notion of making one collection system (dual stream) the default system for local authorities, unless and until circumstances dictate otherwise. Single stream has won its right to be considered as a collection option, no matter what others say. It can and does produce a quality product.

I recently discussed MRW’s ‘Recycling United’ campaign with editor Paul Sanderson. There’s no doubting his sincerity, and I agree that quality has to be a key consideration in recycling. It’s just that I differ in how it might be achieved.

I cannot support the notion of making one collection system (dual stream) the default system for local authorities, unless and until circumstances dictate otherwise. Single stream has won its right to be considered as a collection option, no matter what others say. It can and does produce a quality product.

Why do I support single-stream collection? Because Britain must lift its recycling rate. Because we have one of the worst records in the EU for sending waste to landfill, despite recycling more. Because councils face the real threat of having to pay many millions in fines. And because, in just three years’ time, landfill tax will be £72 per tonne – nearly double today’s rate.

The fundamental driver is the need to increase diversion of waste from landfill to cut costs and avoid financial penalties. Single-stream commingling using wheeled bins does that: it dramatically lifts local recycling rates and it ticks many other important boxes, such as efficiency, cost, value, ease-of-use, productivity and safety. And it lies at the heart of many commercial and industrial recycling services.

As an example, Verdant launched a recycling and waste collection system for South Oxfordshire District Council in early June 2009. It comprised alternate week collection of an expanded range of dry recyclables commingled in a single wheeled bin, and of residual waste in another wheeled bin, plus weekly collection of food waste from caddies and a subscription-based fortnightly garden waste collection service, also from a wheeled bin.

From a standing start, the local recycling and composting rate has rocketed from 38% to more than than 70%. Verdant projects a full-year rate of around 70%, which will make South Oxfordshire the best- performing council in England.

Compare that to May Gurney’s well-publicised service for the Somerset Waste Partnership. The only operational difference between it and South Oxfordshire is the former’s kerbside-sort collection of dry recyclables. The SWP’s recycling and composting rate is widely regarded as excellent at less than 60% in selected trial areas.

As to processing, the UK has too many old, inefficient materials recycling facilities (MRFs). But committed players such as Greenstar are investing millions of pounds in modern plants because they make a real difference to quality outputs, whether fed by single stream or segregated recyclables. They are helping to turn the tide of indifferent processing.

All collection systems have contamination: it is a question of how well MRFs and reprocessors deal with it. Our MRFs always aim for quality. If we did not make a quality product, we would not be able to sell it and so would quickly be out of business. Our business model is critically dependent on making high-quality products and selling those products for the highest price. I am proud of the fact that we create recyclable products which enjoy a strong demand all around the world because of their quality.

Greenstar currently sells its products to UK, European and Far East buyers of recyclables – and has hardly no complaints about quality. Even though some UK buyers are unable to process these products through their systems, it does not mean the recyclable material is of poor quality.

Just as we have invested in quality collections and quality processing, so we are investing in trying to improve understanding. Greenstar has commissioned an independent consultancy to look into the key performance and quality attributes of single-stream collections and of MRF processing. Whatever the results, we will publish them in the hope that money spent will be money saved in the long run.

Ian Wakelin is chief executive of Greenstar

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