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Why we want Recycling United

Paul Sanderson

Over the last few years, I have spoken to a number of readers about why I think it is important that MRW is a vehicle for the recycling and waste management industry to debate the vital and strategic issues affecting the way the UK deals with its waste and resources.

I believe it is important on the whole, for MRW to be balanced and neutral and allow people from both sides of an argument time and space in the magazine to put their point of view – ideally backed up by strong evidence. And I want that to continue.

But on this occasion, I have decided to break with that rule and MRW is coming off the fence when it comes to the quality debate. To be honest, I feel that the debate between source separated advocates and those for commingled hasn’t developed over the past two or three years and I think now is the time to try to unite the industry for all our benefit.

MRW is not backing either side. We are not becoming a member of the Campaign for Real Recycling for example. Myself and the editorial team are not advocating source separated or commingled, but seeking a compromise solution because the evidence is increasingly suggesting that UK materials are not of sufficient quality either for UK reprocessors or for the export market. I’m not against single stream commingled and MRFs per se, but there are too many cases where this collection method is not providing good enough quality material. If that changes, then great, let’s go for commingled.

So, in this issue we are launching the Recycling United – Time for Quality campaign and we are seeking your support. This week and over the coming weeks, we will be giving you what we believe is the evidence behind this campaign. Our message will still be the same – this is what others in the recycling industry think about source separated, about dual stream and yes about commingled, but make up your own minds being aware of the MRW viewpoint. If you disagree with me, then email me at If you agree, and want to register support, then visit our website to do so.

Eventually, I would like to build a Courtauld Commitment-style agreement in which local authorities and stakeholder businesses commit to a united standpoint on quality with distinct aims.

This is what I suggest should form the basis of that commitment:

MRW is calling on all local authorities to have as a minimum a dual stream collection of dry recyclables by 2020. This would mean that paper and cardboard would be collected separately from other dry recyclables. Single stream commingled collections would only be used in extreme situations where no other collection method is possible and the authority should commit to a minimum overall dual stream. Ideally, local authorities will commit to source separated collection schemes, but it needs to be recognised that this system is not always practical.

Local authorities will also commit to, as a minimum, collecting the following dry materials to ensure a national standard collection system and to avoid local confusion:

• Aluminium and steel cans

• Paper and cardboard

• Plastic bottles (both HDPE and PET)

• Glass bottles and jars

If prior to 2020, MRF technology is proven to provide equivalent quality to at least dual stream, then single stream commingled should be considered a viable and valid alternative.

But I don’t only want local authorities to commit. I want waste management companies and materials recycling facility operators, and even plant and equipment manufacturers to sign up. MRW is calling on waste management companies and MRF operators to accept that the quality of UK recyclate needs to improve. We ask that they sign up to the following commitments:

• The major waste management companies will, as a matter of practice, advocate dual stream collections as a minimum service level when bidding for local authority (or commercial where appropriate) tenders unless they are 100% certain that the quality of material they produce from MRF technology is equivalent or better than dual stream.

• Waste management companies and MRF operators, where single stream or dual stream sorting is required, will commit to not over-stocking conveyors at MRFs with more material than the sorting line can cope with to ensure the highest possible quality for this material.

What do you think? Do you agree with me and the MRW editorial team?
If you think the above should be worded differently, email me with your suggestions.

Here is why MRW is launching this campaign and then you can decide yourself whether I am right or wrong in deciding on this standpoint.

1. The MRW team talks to lots of people. Our anecdotal evidence is that those who advocate commingled are reducing because the evidence shows that quality of material is declining as volume of material collected increases.

2. The majority of UK materials reprocessors are telling us that single stream commingled material leads to lower quality. They argue that they are buying the material and paying for contamination by weight they do not want. Some UK reprocessors like commingled, but recognise that there is a strong argument for keeping paper separate because it contaminates and gets contaminated by other materials. It is important to remember that the Environment Agency estimated in 2008 that the typical rejection rate at MRFs is 10.8%. This compares to less than 1% for kerbside sort schemes. Would you be upset if almost 11% of your weekly shop was contaminated with products you don’t want and are paying for? This is how UK materials reprocessing businesses feel when they buy materials from MRFs.

3. UK materials reprocessors are starting to import material from other countries because the quality is higher and their business need is for higher quality material. This is madness when there is a surplus of material in the UK.

4. As you will see in a feature later in this magazine, we interviewed 150 Chinese companies on their views on the UK recycling market. It was clear that they feel that they get better quality material from Japan, Germany and the US and that material from the UK is considered expensive. Do you honestly believe that the UK’s biggest export market for recyclate will want to buy low quality and expensive material from us forever? This is a global commodities market and we need to provide material that people want to buy. Quality is key for our future competitiveness.

5. It was controversial and interesting that WRAP has come down on one side of the argument, but the report Choosing the Right Recycling Collection System was a vital contribution to the debate. When WRAP modelled collection costs it found that source separated kerbside schemes had the lowest overall net cost, dual stream was next and single stream commingled overall was the most expensive. WRAP also found that it was the larger containers typically provided with commingled collections that leads to increased volumes of material collected and not the collection method itself. The lesson was to increase volume, increase the size of the container and this applies to dual stream and source separated collections. If dual stream or source separated are overall cheaper and have increased container sizes, then everyone is a winner.

It is now time for the debate to move on. I don’t want to see more commingled versus source separated debates and I hope you’ll agree. Let’s see if we can unite the recycling and waste management industry, get a good debate going and hopefully compromise. We all have the same goals for recycling in this country. We’ve made massive strides in improving our municipal recycling rates and everyone involved should feel very proud. But now it’s time for quality.


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