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Quality issue that won’t go away


  • Chris Dow, managing director, Closed Loop Recycling
  • Marcus Gover, director of market development programmes, WRAP
  • Bill Griffiths, national recycling manager, Viridor
  • Joe Papineschi, director, Eunomia Consulting
  • Andrew Perkins, head of recycling, Aylesford Newsprint
  • Michael Topham, recycling director, Biffa
  • Katie Zabel from WRAP was also in attendance as an observer

Materials quality
Paul Sanderson:
Do we still have an issue with the quality of materials sent to reprocessors in the UK and abroad?

Andrew Perkins: The easy answer is, yes, it’s a huge problem. There are an awful lot of materials presented in my world, newspapers and magazines, that I can’t use. It somehow gets sold and moves but it remains as it is.

Chris Dow: What we have seen is a fairly steady deterioration, quality rates have fallen, but collection rates have risen. It is probably a fairly healthy signal as to the quality of the infrastructure for sorting we currently have. That’s a generalisation, but we are getting material from some very good MRFs and a lot from very poor MRFs. There are not enough good ones, and it just makes it harder and harder to get the end quality the customers are after.

Michael Topham: I would share that view, to a certain extent. I would say in Biffa Polymers that when we take natural HDPE bottles, we have varying quality. I wouldn’t share the view that we have seen a deterioration in quality - that’s not a view I’ve heard from the ground. I think it would go against what I would believe as MRFs get better. There are lots of newer MRFs and I would have thought the standard is improving.

We have to remember to take a holistic view of why the material is coming in, in the form it’s coming in. If Chris has a perception that quality has deteriorated, it could be he is getting a greater percentage of his feedstock from MRFs rather than source-segregated collection streams. If that is a result of a greater amount of commingled recycling, which has in turn allowed a seismic increase in the amount of the recycling in the UK, then it’s just a minor issue we will have to deal with and adapt to.

Marcus Gover:
If we are saying quality has changed, how are we measuring it as a reprocessor and a supplier?

AP: There are a number of measures, one of which is that if it isn’t fibrous, it gets spat out of our system. There is a direct relationship between the level of material spat out and the percentage of MRF material we are taking in - although that isn’t to say all MRF material is of the same quality.

MT: If we are capturing a lot more fibre as a result of the commingling process, even if we lose some through manufacturing process, is it a price worth paying as a country and a taxpayer?

CD: I think increases in volume have been staggering - they are fantastic. I would go back to the example of when we came over here in 2003 and we broke up bales: the collection rate was 50,000 tonnes, most of the materials coming out of MRFs was handpicked, with 95% bottles in those bales.

That’s not necessarily the case today because some MRFs are producing very good quality. The key issue is: what is contamination? You have 80 councils putting in non-bottle plastics, so what is a contaminant for me is an in-feed for you. So we have got to get better at sorting those out.

“You have 80 councils putting in non-bottle plastics, so what is a contaminant for me is an in-feed for you. So we have got to get better at sorting those out”

We all know the current situation: the export market is not driving quality. Our major supplier will let us audit a MRF on a regular basis. We get 60% material from Veolia, which has no problem asking us to make a change because it is committed to domestic recycling. That’s a bonus. I think the future is in no doubt: we are going to get bottles with other plastics and it’s unstoppable - but it is also an opportunity and the next generation of recycling. I’m embracing it and, with our extension, we will be supplying the Redcar plant at Biffa - and for me that is exciting.

Business culture
Bill Griffiths:
I think it comes back to the fundamentals of cultural difference: from a reprocessing point of view, are you dealing with a waste management company or a resource management company? There is a massive cultural leap between the two.

If you are dealing with a waste company, you might end up with lower quality materials because of the volume and ‘pile it high, sell it cheap’ approach. But if you are dealing with a resource management company, then you look at the volume you are producing and you look to add value to that volume as you go through the chain. It might be you can accept to clean it up further because the price premium is greater.

Yes, you need a highly technical MRF, especially if you are trying to push 80,000-90,000 tonnes a year, but it’s the business culture that drives quality. Everything is driven by critical control points on the output analysis. Effectively, the few people analysing output materials determine how fast the plant runs.

Joe Papineschi: One of the things that has been affecting quality as volumes dramatically increased has been plants under pressure to push through as much tonnage as possible, partly through the economic incentive of gate fees and partly because they have customers who need material processed.

MT: I’m a believer that the market and price will win the day. We have got to get that balance - we have to keep getting the tonnes through. We never have enough storage, but if we do that at the cost of quality, we will lose out on price and then when we come to re-bid for that contract we won’t be able to make it add up.

Public education
You really need to get into a position where you talk about accredited MRFs and non-accredited ones that need a much closer eye kept on them. I have rarely failed to be impressed looking at any MRF input quality relative to output quality. What some MRFs are presented with [in terms of materials] is truly shocking, and what they produce with it is normally pretty amazing.

The equipment can only deal with certain ranges of materials and that needs to be imposed on the general public. We have shied away from that in the fight to win contracts. The message needs to be driven to householders that you can’t throw everything out. It still matters how you handle them, how we handle them. Compaction ratios truly matter.

BG: We run recyclate quality assessment days at our waste transfer stations, and we run them every six months on PFI contracts with the local authorities that feed into them.

All the county councils, districts, boroughs and collection crews come to these days, pulling every single load apart to identify what’s in it. They get graphs and reports, but here they physically come and get their hands dirty and see what the key issues are.

One of the things that comes out of these assessment days is collection and compaction. Two districts deliver into one transfer station with two different collection vehicles: one that compacts less gets five tonnes per load of far better quality material than one that puts nine tonnes in a load. Five tonnes is a direct service, nine tonnes is a contractor machine.

Local authorities have generally got a lot better at communicating effectively - commingled collection is a very simple message and makes it easy for the householder.

Material rejection
What you [Bill Griffiths] are saying is as encouraging as I’ve ever heard with regards to recyclates. But the reality is that you only need a fairly small number of suppliers that can tear your hair out, block optical sorters and so on. Do we have the power to be able to pick and choose? Traders basically are saying: ‘You don’t want it? I’ll ship to China’. It doesn’t matter if it has 20% contamination; that is where the work has to be done.

JP: I think there has been some average deterioration in quality as a result of a massive pull for material from China, but the habit of reprocessors rejecting loads has reduced because you are competing for material.

CD: We used to reject a load a week - I’ve not rejected one for months.

MT: It could be because reprocessors have become more adapted to it.

PS: Is the recycling rate then accurate if you all have rejections rates of a certain percentage?

MT: I know the last report that compared commingled and kerbside, it took an adjustment factor of about 10% in assumed waste in commingled. I know I have MRFs that do run at 10% and you run them for longer and you get it down.

I can’t believe anyone would argue that when you take on material you don’t carry some waste - it is all about the prize. The cost of landfill is so high now that it really hurts; we are not flippant about that. But in my view, it is far better in terms of the overall recycling levels and full cost to go down that [commingled] route.

BG: When you feed commingled material into a MRF there is a level of non-target material in the back end of that MRF which does not have to go to landfill because there is energy from waste (EfW). I think October was the last time we landfilled anything at the Ford MRF - you can do that if you’ve got your input quality correct. If you are running at less than 4% contamination on the in-feed and you have got a bit of EfW in the back end, that tends to work quite well.

MT: It’s in Wastedataflow anyway.

BG: That’s right, so that little bit of waste comes off a local authority’s recycling figures. When you send that 96% for reprocessing, there will obviously be waste from that process, but it’s a manufacturing process. The MRFs are the last places you can possibly make that distinction.

JP: The Welsh Assembly Government has effectively brought in a new method for measuring recycling rates that include not natural process loss, but they are counting process loss which relates to contamination. In your [AP’s] case, they will be looking at both the non-fibre material that you have are screening off and the fibre you are losing when you’re screening that off, and that’s how they’re going to be expecting local authorities to report.

They are going to need reprocessors and their contractors to help them to do that. It is quite possible that is the way measurement is going to head in England as well, as we start to focus on carbon.
Part two of this discussion will be in next week’s issue of MRW

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