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Tis the season to recycle Christmas cards

There are a number of ways that the industry captures Christmas cards for recycling, with the Woodland Trust the first to offer a nationwide recycling service through retailers 14 years ago, and now with kerbside collections having become the norm, local authorities also collecting an increasing number of cards.

Severnside is part of the team supporting the Woodland Trust scheme, which has recycled some 600 million Christmas cards since 1996. Alongside Severnside and SCA who both recycle the cards, retailers such as Homesense, Marks & Spencer and TK Maxx are providing collection points in every store.

Great steps have been taken to minimise the environmental impact of this recycling scheme, which has received unfair criticism, as people assume that Christmas cards travel hundreds of miles to be recycled. What isn’t appreciated is that it uses the existing recycling infrastructure and involves no additional transportation. Retailers backhaul the cards to regional distribution centres as part of their own cardboard and packaging recycling process, which is then collected by the recyclers and added to all the other fibre from the region that is then graded, baled and turned into new paper products.

Once collected from retailers or local authorities, the cards can be mixed with the variety of fibre from households and businesses and sorted into different grades. Sorting fibres is a skilled job, and often there is no substitute for the human eye and experience in recognising and sorting it into grades. Quality is critical for the mills and separation of grades must be rigorous. At the end of the day, fibre has value and mills may downgrade bales of material, meaning the recyclate has less value. Mills may even go as far as rejecting the bale if they believe the level of contamination to be contrary to the recycling process.

Once the grades are segregated, they are baled and transported to one of St Regis’ (Severnside’s sister company’s) mills. Each trip sees around 40 bales of paper, around 25 tonnes, taken to the next stage in the recycling process.

At the mill, each bale undergoes a quality control process to ensure it is the grade proposed. Christmas cards will often be recycled as one of the lower grades due to the high levels of contaminates such as glitter, glue, plastics and significant quantities of ink. The paper recycling process does have a degree of tolerance to accept a level of contamination, to enable as wide a spectrum of paper products to be reprocessed as possible.

Contamination is a hot topic in the recycling arena. Source segregated collections of paper will always yield the ‘cleanest’ material. Where feasible, it’s possible to go a step further, for waste producers to sort between different basic grades, such as white office paper and newspapers/magazines. As a recycling industry, there has been a push to encourage separate paper collections at both the domestic and commerce level to help get the best value. That said, there are significant benefits in targeting small volumes of fibre with a mixed dry recyclables collection. This allows for fibre (and other materials) to be recovered from landfill, that, on their own do not merit separate collections from either a carbon or cost perspective.

DS Smith Packaging, along with Severnside and St Regis form the UK paper and corrugated division of DS Smith Plc – providing the UK with a unique production, collection and reprocessing closed loop. Typically Christmas cards are recycled into new tissue-based products such as kitchen towels, with the recycling process able to take as little as 14 days from collection to new products being back on the shelf. 

Tim Price is national commercial manager at Severnside Recycling

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