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Re-igniting the collection debate

What type of recycling collection system can achieve the best recycling rates, good participation, high-quality materials and the best value for money? That’s the question that most local authorities are seeking an answer to.

Last summer, the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) stated its preference for kerbside sort in its Choosing the Right Recycling Collection System leaflet. It says: “WRAP believes that kerbside sort collections should be preferred where they are practical and should be in the majority of local authority areas.”

It adds that kerbside sort offers “reliable material quality and lower net costs for council taxpayers” as well being “capable of capturing the same volume of material as commingled schemes”.

But in a bid to “get more factual information into the public domain”, recycling company Greenstar commissioned environmental consultant WYG to carry out an independent report, Review of Kerbside Recycling Collection Schemes Operated by Local Authorities, to “highlight successful recycling schemes (of any design) and to re-examine some of the arguments…regarding commingled collections”.

Greenstar chief executive Ian Wakelin says that “for too long there has been a distinctly partial view of commingling”, but “now there is new, important impartial evidence about commingling and other collection options”. Its decision to commission WYG was to give it “that independent status” and not influence the outcome of the report, explains Verdant (part of Greenstar) managing director Roger Edwards.

WRAP came out with a statement that was categorically saying kerbside sort systems produce as much recycled material as any other collection systems, which is factually wrong - Roger Edwards

He says: “WRAP came out with a statement that was categorically saying kerbside sort systems produce as much recycled material as any other collection systems, which is factually wrong. If WRAP or anyone else is going to make a statement like that, then they absolutely have to have hard facts behind it. I think the WYG report disproves what WRAP has said in that particular statement.”

Key findings

  • Most (26) of the top-performing 30 English local authorities for dry recycling use commingled collections
  • WasteDataFlow information for 2008/09 showed local councils using commingled collection performed significantly better than those using kerbside-sort collections, diverting on average 25% more tonnage even after allowing for MRF rejections
  • Using alternate-week collections of residual waste and commingled dry recyclables from wheeled bins, plus weekly food waste collections and chargeable garden waste collections, can produce recycling and composting rates of 70% - far higher than selected trials hailed by the Somerset Waste Partnership, which uses kerbside-sort
  • There is anecdotal evidence that commingling can improve operational health and safety, public ease of use and street cleanliness
  • MRFs produce recyclates from commingled collections that meet the specifications of reprocessors in the UK and abroad, which Greenstar UK believes is the only true and tangible test of recyclate quality

WYG report co-author and waste expert Len Attrill says the consultancy is “agnostic” on collection systems, and has clients that use commingled and others kerbside sort. “The key is to get some balance into the debate because the view until this report has been that kerbside sort is best and those who are going commingled should go back to kerbside sort,” says Attrill.

The key is to get some balance into the debate because the view until this report has been that kerbside sort is best and those who are going commingled should go back to kerbside sort - Len Attrill

“We had councils, some of whom are the highest performing councils in the country, saying ‘gosh, have we got this all wrong?’ So we felt we owed it to the wider local authority market to say ‘let’s look at the facts’. All these figures are publicly available information, and it beggars belief that anybody else could not notice that that was the truth.”

Edwards says that Verdant is equally neutral, running a number of kerbside collection schemes: “So it is wrong to think that we, as a company, have a view to only doing commingled collections.”

WYG’s report highlights that most councils with top rates for dry recycling in England use commingled systems, but it agrees with WRAP’s statement that “one size does not fit all”.

The answer is that councils need to look at this on a case-by-case basis, do some modelling, and not just look at the finances and capture rate but also consider their local priorities - Len Attrill

According to Attrill: “The answer is that councils need to look at this on a case-by-case basis, do some modelling, and not just look at the finances and capture rate but also consider their local priorities.”

While Edwards is not surprised to find that commingled yields are higher, he is “slightly surprised to see it was as much as 25% [higher] on average - and that 25% is based on the facts as published by Wastedataflow using 2008/09 data”.

He adds: “That percentage, I believe, will increase as the years progress. I would expect 2009/10 to be higher as more materials are accepted into the commingling streams, such as mixed plastics, Tetra Paks and so on, which you are not necessarily going to be able to accept easily in kerbside sort schemes.”

On contamination:

  • Overall MRF reject rates of 2-10.8% are typical, with 4% being the average
  • Contamination rates are much lower for modern MRFs that accept a wide range of materials
  • Discussions with MRF operators indicate that there are sometimes unrealistic expectations regarding the quality of recyclate, and some reprocessors are probably ‘cherry picking’ the best recyclate and rejecting the rest - but not because it is unacceptable. Greenstar points out that it does not see this as the case and always manages to sell its material, but notes this may be the case for others
  • Discussions with UK reprocessors indicate that materials from MRFs are just as acceptable as kerbside-sorted ones
  • Some MRFs report contamination rates of less that 1% in paper bales, which meets the paper specification of typical UK mill requirements as suggested in PAS 105

Verdant development director Pete Dickson believes that three points from the report stand out: “If the local authority wants to maximise its diversion through dry recycling, it needs to use a commingled system. If it wants to reduce cost in the longer term because of that increased diversion and increased disposal costs, it needs to choose commingled. And if it wants to ensure a quality recyclate coming out the system, then it can choose any system it likes as long as it is well managed.”

So are they saying that quality output is not linked to the collection system? Greenstar recycling director MickDavis interjects at this point. “In the main, the quality of outputs in the materials recycling facility (MRF) is not dictated by the material that goes into it. It is dictated by the actual quality standard of the MRF itself and how good an operation it is,” he says. “Where you have got a state-of-the-art MRF, where someone like Greenstar has invested a lot of money in it, we are capable of producing a quality that is basically as good as kerbside sort. The evidence is that the same companies will buy our material as will buy from kerbside sort: we can supply to the UK and we can supply to the Far East.

It’s not as simple as how good people are at picking or how fast you run a belt - it’s much more complicated than that. That is the sophistication I don’t think is being understood - Mick Davies

“This idea that ‘MRFs aren’t as good’ is such a generic statement,” Davis adds. “We have nine variables which affect quality at any one time. We do quality checks hourly on our fibre, and we take a bale off every shift and we analyse it down to the nth degree and analyse what our quality standards are. It’s not as simple as how good people are at picking or how fast you run a belt - it’s much more complicated than that. That is the sophistication I don’t think is being understood.”

Would it not help to have a quality standard for MRFs? Attrill says that local authorities themselves will help to drive up the quality standards of MRFs as they seek new contracts. “This is not an argument that ‘we want good quality MRFs because we want good-quality MRFs’; it is the fact that good-quality MRFs do give this very high capture rate because they are handling a wide range of materials,” he says. “In time, councils themselves will move towards higher quality MRFs. I believe the market will have to respond to that by raising its game because no one will want to buy from under-performing facilities.”

In time, councils themselves will move towards higher quality MRFs. I believe the market will have to respond to that by raising its game because no one will want to buy from under-performing facilities - Len Attrill

Edwards adds that, as MRFs develop, not only does quality improve but contamination reduces, simply because newer MRFs take in and separate more materials that would previously have been considered contaminants, such as Tetra Paks or mixed plastics. “Just by extending the range of materials, contamination drops, and that is something that will only increase going forward,” he says.

The WYG report suggests an average MRF rejection rate of 4% versus the official Environment Agency figure of 10.85%. Wakelin adds that as more MRFs are built and upgraded, rejection rates should fall.

On costs, the report also finds that you cannot generalise that one system is cheaper than another because proximity to a MRF, MRF gate fee and differential in collection costs, recyclate sale, tonnage diverted and so on are all key cost determinants.

According to WRAP, “kerbside sort schemes show lower costs, net of income from material sales, than single-stream commingled streams”. But WYG’s reports says that if all “true costs” are considered, these should include the financial benefits of diverting more material from landfill and reduced operational and tax costs. It has examples showing how each type of system can be cheaper, depending on the local circumstances.

Edwards says: “I think that, fundamentally, because of the procurement process and the ways that it works, for anyone to say ‘X is the cheapest system’ is wrong -the market will determine what is deemed to be ‘best value’ for a particular local authority at a particular time.”

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