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Big Interview: Simon Walker

When UPM opened its own MRF next to its paper mill at Shotton, Deeside, in 2011, it was a significant moment. The MRF, which feeds sorted newspapers and magazines (news & pams) directly to its paper-making plant, was built as an extension to its manufactur­ing process.

It was done out of necessity: the paper manufacturer, which uses 100% recovered paper to make newsprint at the site, recognised the shift by councils towards using commingled waste col­lections. UPM needed access to a supply of news & pams for its paper process, and it needed to ensure high-quality feedstock.

Simon Walker, head of recovered paper sourcing and sales, oversees the sale of materials from the MRF and the purchase of material for the paper mill. He walks me through the MRF and explains that, since it opened, the mix of input materials has changed quite con­siderably – meaning the MRF has had to adapt and invest accordingly.

For example, news & pams input by weight has dropped significantly, from around 40% to 23%, while mixed paper input has increased from around 0.5% to 21%. Light-weighting of plastic bot­tles has also had an impact. The plant now processes a greater number of plas­tic bottles, but the weight-based input percentages for bottles has fallen because they are now around 30% lighter. There has also been an unantic­ipated growth in glass.

The proposed deposit return scheme (DRS) to incentivise the public to recy­cle their drinks containers could cause further changes to the composition of a MRF’s inputs.

“The problem with the DRS is, if all the saleable plastic elements go away, where is the revenue going to come from to warrant MRFs? So, while the DRS prima facie looks very interesting because it’s a nice captured clean source of material – which we have to say is a good thing – what is the implication of that for MRFs?” Walker asks.

“The question is how many house­holders are really going to save up their plastic bottles and go to [a supermar­ket] and get their return on it? There will be some, but there won’t be vast numbers doing it because they won’t be bothered. Particularly if it doesn’t give them cash [but instead] a ticket that they can take to spend in [a retailer].

“What impact that will have on MRFs depends on the take-up and how hard that hits household collections. Our MRF is protected – we are in a very lucky place because a good proportion of our material is used straight in pro­duction so we don’t have the vagaries of the market.”

UPM’s newsprint mill uses all the paper from its MRF apart from card­board and mixed paper, which is sold to other mills for making cardboard.

Despite its position in the market and lack of exposure to export, Walker explains that changes in the market do have an effect, in terms of price.

“We are in a competitive market so, if the price of mixed paper a year ago was £100 for sales and this year it was £10, for example, £90 of revenue has gone,” he says. “What we find, though, is that some of the local authorities are a bit smarter than they used to be – so now they are doing a profit share on the recy­clates that are generated but they are giving a guaranteed fixed price for their sorting.

“So, for example, if we use silly round numbers, a council might say ‘we’ll pay you £10 to take this material, but if you sell those goods for £80 we want half of that back’. That is the sort of deal people are doing. The point might come where we pay them for the material because we are sharing the benefit, but we are also sharing the pain. So the more enlightened local authorities are willing to take a risk.”

Price and quality go hand in hand, of course, and Walker says there is a need to get back to basics and educate the public as to what is recyclable: “That is quite hard because we have run away from the established base we had of people understanding recycling – to put everything in one bin. Now we are say­ing, ‘actually that doesn’t work terribly well’. But we have lost a whole generation of people whose instinct is that it just goes in the recycling bin.”

For Walker, the answer “has got to be a pact between the Government, local authorities and industry to make it work”. He believes it must be a joint piece of work.

“We have got to get back to funda­mentals: where is the value in the chain? What’s in it for the Government, councils and industry? And unless we can answer those questions, I don’t think we are ever going to get into a position where we all agree.”

Despite having a MRF, UPM’s strong preference is still for source-segregated news & pams that it can feed direct to its newsprint mill. Walker says: “If a local authority gives me source-segregated news & pams, I would be happy to pay it more than if it gives me mixed paper, and I would be able to [pay more] instead of charging to take commingled material.”

“It is very disappointing that tenders are allowed with very large percentages of contamination, so a local authority will say ‘you can bid for this mixed paper and it has 19% contamination’. Well, that is not mixed paper. Mixed paper is 1.5% contamination.”

He believes that the current set-up of the recyclables collection and sorting market has “taken the value out of the value chain”. He points to the figures that 63% of UK household recycling is collected via commingled systems, 28% is dual-stream (cardboard and paper) and 9% is source-segregated.

“I think the advent of commingling has damaged the recycling industry in terms of people understanding quality,” he says. “I am not saying that all MRFs are bad – far from it. Ours is very good and I have seen some other great exam­ples across the UK.”

Walker adds that having its own MRF has enabled UPM to show others what can be done: “Our biggest prob­lem is those that don’t want to learn and local authorities that seem content with, frankly, poor output results from the MRFs they use because it is the cheaper option.”

Asked whether the MRF code of practice has had any impact, he replies: “I don’t impact, he replies: “I don’t see it having done that much. Good MRFs will have always been measuring anyway, like we were. And bad MRFs will find a way around it. Where are the audits?”

Changing materials streams and markets

UPM has reconfigured its MRF a few times to adapt to input changes and market changes:

l It ‘switched off’ its line for plastic pots, tubs and trays (PTT) and now uses the line for mixed papers because there is currently no market for PTT.

l It is looking to widen its plastic belts and to put in an extra plastic sorting belt to deal with the increasing number of plastic bottles that are coming through the MRF. As the bottles have been light-weighted, it is handling a greater number of bottles.

l The MRF is looking at widening the eddy current separator so that it can get a bigger scatter across the machine and save more aluminium.

l After the plastic bag tax was introduced, the three or four loads a week of plastic bags that came into the MRF fell to just one.

The decline in newspaper readership is a key issue for paper-makers:

“Currently there is still more usage than there is production in the UK. But as those two numbers converge, it is going to be more and more difficult to obtain news and magazines in the UK. So what I can than there is production in the UK. But as those two numbers converge, it is going to be more and more difficult to obtain news and magazines in the UK. So what I can see is the UK becoming an import destination, possibly even from the US or from mainland Europe, for news and magazines to make paper.”

Potential shift from plastics to fibre:

“We are coming along now to fibre-based bottles for drinks, for example. We are going to end up with food trays which are made with paper, and how do we deal with those as an industry? We don’t want food waste in our process and neither do the cardboard chaps.”

China’s impact on the market and thoughts on the future:

“The Chinese are talking about a ban on all waste imports after 2020 and that will be interesting. What are they going to do? is the question. Will they end up offshoring? Making pulp in Indonesia or Taiwan or other nearby countries and then importing the pulp as a finished product? Will they move their indigenous production outside of China? Will they expand in other parts of the world? None of us know – we can only speculate.

“I think it is somewhat ironic that the Chinese standard for materials coming in, at 0.5%, is roughly one-third of the European norm. It is a difficult standard and probably beyond most MRFs to be able to achieve it. It is going to [have to] go into different sorting plants rather than MRFs.

“People will perhaps be taking MRF outputs and then re-sorting them for China. There is probably enough margin difference to do it because the export price is probably double the domestic price for China. That will be quite interesting if it happens. But not if China decides in 2020 that it is going to stop all imports anyway.

“I certainly wouldn’t invest in that in the moment – it wouldn’t be sensible until we know what is going to happen.”

Walker explains that his MRF uses its data to have discussions with suppliers, and each month all suppliers get a breakdown of what materials they have sent the MRF, based on sampling.

“We offer that, along with photos of material we have found that shouldn’t be in there, along with a history trend of what is happening. Some people take it very seriously and address the problem of contamination – I can tell you exam­ples of where they were up to 12 or 15% contamination and we brought them back down to 8 or 9% at the MRF. And I can show you examples of people that just don’t give a hoot.”

As well as the MRF input data, sup­pliers also receive data on the end destinations for all their materials.

Walker says: “It is not helping when we are being told that stuff is being bur­ied overseas, when 99.9% of it is being handled very responsibly and dealt with very properly. But we have got these occasional rogues who do something bad and it taints the whole industry.

“We collect eight million tonnes of paper in the UK and we have an indig­enous production capacity of only three million tonnes. What would we do if we didn’t export? We need those exporters, but we need them to be responsible, decent businesses that are checked out.

“That is where we can get the help from the Government. And councils need to get to people and say ‘look, we really are doing proper recycling here’.

“Responsible behaviour by people is the first thing that we really have got to go back to basics on – and that probably means something on the curriculum for kids to be told what to do, and to use pester power to get their parents to recycle properly. We have really got to deal with handling litter, handling the issue of people leaving their stuff in the wrong place.

“Where does all the money come from? The money will come from recy­clers – if it is kept clean.”

Walker explains that lack of educa­tion at the householder level then has effects further along the chain: “It is very disappointing that tenders are allowed with very large percentages of contamination, so a local authority will say – and I have seen some recently on the system – you can bid for this mixed paper and it has 19% contamination.

“We have run away from the base we had of people understanding recycling – to put everything in one bin. Now we are saying, ‘actually that doesn’t work terribly well’.”

“Well, that is not mixed paper. Mixed paper is 1.5% contamination. So, should we not be using the same method of description for all aspects of the chain as to what counts as mixed paper, what counts as commingled and what counts as source-segregated?”

He also questions the fairness of such high contamination levels, the expectation that they can be dealt with and the difference in approach between nations of the UK. “If you look at the Welsh Government and the way it looks at mixed papers, it says that mixed papers coming into a sorting site in Wales can have only 1.5% contamina­tion. But in England the Government says it can be 19% contamination and can run under an exemption. So there is a fundamental difference.”

Contaminants are the usual suspects: plastic bags and cans, essentially materials that have been put in the wrong bins. This goes back to education, Walker says, “but nobody can afford to educate, so it gets worse”.

“Somewhere, someone has got to bite the bullet and I think it is the responsi­bility of the Government. I don’t think industry is big enough to give the mes­sages that need to be done. I don’t think local authorities have got the money or the wherewithal to do it. I think it needs to be a central push for quality.”

Walker says there is not much differ­ence in the material received from a council that has an in-house collection service or an outsourced service: “It is the will and direction of the tender when it is set up that makes the product.

“I would suggest the local authority should have a collection tender which is separate from the disposal of waste ten­der, so paper mills have the chance to bid directly with the local authority for the paper element. That way, the value that is in the paper will go back to the local authority and not the collector.”

As to what he would want to see in the forthcoming resources and waste strategy, he goes back to better quality. He believes there are two aspects to achieving this: the will do it (“the hard part”) and getting councils to be respon­sible for selling their recyclates, so that they are more connected to ensuring they collect saleable materials.

“If, for example, [the local authority is] in a relationship with a waste man­agement company which takes all the household [recyclate] collection and keeps it, well, that can’t be too beneficial for the local authority because it has no opportunity to make money on that – just a cost.

“There has got to be a sea change in behaviour, at local authority level and at waste management company level.”

Fires and the increase in discarded batteries

batteries pulled from the mrf

batteries pulled from the mrf

In January 2017, a fire broke out at UPM’s Shotton MRF in an isolated part of the plant. The plant was shut down immediately and all MRF employees were safely evacuated. Shotton’s emergency team responded with its own fire appliance, and the North Wales Fire and Rescue Service then brought the blaze under control within four hours.

The initial fire was believed to have started in a waste residue holding bay, and UPM believes it was a battery that started the fire. Walker says: “We can’t categorically state that [a battery started the fire], but we fundamentally believe it was.”

As a result, the company has now installed thermal cameras as a mitigation measure.

“We can watch the inbound material to make sure it is not overheating as well as the outbound material – the residues – which is where the fire was seated. We also have mitigation for smouldering batteries on the lines,” he explains.

“We have six to eight instances a month where we have to pick out a smouldering battery and deal with it on a line, or a very small incendiary or something overheating. The thermal cameras now pick it up and, of course, we write to local authorities all the time asking them to be vigilant for batteries.”

The councils that UPM deals with tell householders explicitly not to put batteries in their recycling: “But we are finding them coming through into the recovered paper warehouse as well [via segregated paper collections], which is a new problem.

“I think part of the problem is that people are putting batteries in their recycling and, because they are quite small, they are not being spotted in segregation techniques. In [the recovered paper warehouse] there is no piercing, so batteries are not going to get damaged in the same way they are in the MRF and are less likely to short-circuit.

“Even so, there is still a risk. If you’ve got 10,000 tonnes of paper sat there with a hot battery, you are in trouble.”

Walker says there can be a difference in interpretation of ‘end of waste’ between waste management companies and manufacturers or recyclers that use the raw materials.

“[Waste management companies] say that ‘end of waste’ is when materials are sorted into categories, but that is not the end of waste. The end of waste is when it is recycled, when it is made into something new.

“If you take plastic – when it is shred­ded and made into a pellet, it is a new product, ready to be a raw material. While it is a plastic bottle it is not, no matter how well it is sorted. That is quite a difficult argument because you [could say that], once it is ready to be recycled then you can consider it recy­cled – but I don’t think you can.”

Walker says UPM uses its MRF to show others that quality outputs can be achieved with the right approach – and proudly shows the sorted bales of alu­minium, clear PET and clear HDPE that he says are all in demand from buy­ers at top prices.

As a veteran in the industry, with his­tory in selling recovered paper overseas, Walker knows that quality is key – and he wants the rest of the recycling supply chain to focus on this too.

CV: Simon Walker

simon walker2

simon walker2

Head of recovered paper (RCP) sourcing and sales at UPM. He oversees the sale of materials from the MRF and the purchase of material for the paper mill. During his time at UPM, he has been responsible for Europe-wide RCP side products and is part of the UPM RCP management team.

He has more than 20 years’ experience in the paper industry. Previously, he was general manager of a brokerage company, and in 2000 set up his own brokerage business in Stockport, developed to sell recovered paper to Europe and the Far East.

For around 18 years, Walker was responsible for global sales for a contact lens polymer company.


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