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Big Debate - How do you ensure quality?

There is no argument in the waste and recycling industry about a need for the highest quality recyclate. The challenge is how that quality is achieved. The continuing legal hiatus over commingled collection shows consensus is a long way off. Here Viridor’s Herman van der Meij and the CPI’s Stuart Pohler have their say.

Herman van der Meij

Herman van der Meij (HvdM):

Quality is, and always will be, the key driver in the production of commodities. Producing high- quality recyclates for the reprocessing sector is of utmost importance. The choice of collection systems, however, should always be at a local level.

High participation levels and cost-effectiveness form two clear reasons why some of the highest recycling performers choose commingled collections, where it is best for their area. In our experience, as one of the largest MRF operators in the UK, there is not a conflict between the way recyclables are collected - source-segregated or commingled - and the quality of the recyclate as long as you have clear and consistent guidance as to what is accepted in the containers and why, and strict quality assurance protocols at processing facilities.

Stuart Pohler (SP):

The quality of recyclate is key. While some advocate moving on from the age-old recycling collections debate, I am firmly of the view that separate collection is the means most likely to meet the needs of reprocessors and achieve the purpose of the Waste Framework Directive.

Nonetheless, the investments of some CPI members show that mixed collections processed through MRFs with suitable sorting capabilities can meet the necessary standards of the paper recycling sector.

But it remains the case that most MRFs continue to produce substandard output. Inputs are constantly changing, meaning it is difficult for all eventualities to be factored into the design process.

To meet its recycling targets, the UK will need to deal with more complex input material streams and embrace new sorting tech-niques in MRFs. In the absence of significant capital investment to accommodate these technological changes, the impact of proposed initiatives to tackle material quality issues is likely to be limited.

HvdM: On the first point, great work is being delivered by local authorities and private companies to ensure people understand what materials to put out for collection and what happens to those materials after collection. On

the latter, stringent market specifications, together with legislation and codes of practice, are already helping to improve the quality of recyclate from MRFs.

Much of the success in our industry to date is the result of being flexible and quick to adapt to change. Examples of this include the fast evolution and improve-ments in sorting technology.

The recent investment in MRF technologies by paper and other reprocessors demonstrates their confidence that MRFs have a strong role to play in improving effectiveness and cost efficiencies, as well as helping to increase their share of the market. Why would single-stream reprocessors be changing their traditional business models otherwise?

SP: ‘Great work’ is certainly required to effectively educate residents who are receiving source-separated, let alone commingled recycling collections - but a great deal of great work is evidently required on commingled communications campaigns.

This is highlighted by the recent news that, despite a significant communications budget, one particular commingling London council is struggling to deal with 17% MRF input contamination from household collections and around 25% contamination from communal recycling facilities.

The paper reprocessing industry has invested millions in the latest MRF technology to ensure security of supply of quality input material, primarily because overall supply continues to fall short of necessary input specifications.

While most recovered paper collected in the UK is derived from MRFs managed by the big waste management companies, the overall majority of independent MRFs may ultimately struggle to access the investment opportunities available to their big player competitors.

HvdM: It is somewhat unfair to single out a particular council without the full context. The good news is that the largest proportion of councils are engaging effectively with their residents, collection crews and contractors, working under clear input specs, delivering efficient collection systems and achieving reject rates in low single-figure percentages.

In terms of capturing dry recyclables and diverting them from landfill, and in cost-effectiveness, councils with commingled collections remain at the top of the table.

Investment, effort and quality can be delivered by large firms and small operators alike. It remains an exciting time for the recycling and reprocessing industries and we retain the goodwill of householders and businesses.

Our frontline services will continue to supply a full range of material reprocessors with high- quality recycled commodities, with good communication backing things up along the supply chains. As our markets mature, there will be ample need for the full range of collection systems, and cost-effective services remain key.

SP: Your unmitigated positivity is almost infectious, but the evidence suggests otherwise. The latest WRAP survey of reprocessors highlights dissatisfaction with the quality of material from UK MRFs by concluding that more than 60% of reprocessors said only ‘some’ or ‘hardly any’ output from MRFs met their quality specification.

Furthermore, the latest WRAP MRF Quality Assessment Study has summarised the mean percentage of overall non-target material (contamination) in paper-specific outputs to be 12.5%.

The paper reprocessing sector recognises that many councils and some MRFs are doing a sterling job in a climate of conflicting priorities. Rather than simply pointing the finger of blame up the supply chain, we recognise our own role in directly influencing the quality of material we receive.

Evidence-based material quality issues have been acknowledged via the development of a (not-yet mandatory) MRF code of practice and wider material quality action plan. Reprocessors look forward to working with the entire supply chain to ensure maximum mutual benefit in the long term.

Profile - Herman van der Meij

Herman van der Meij’s first job as a teenager was sweeping and picking at a plastics and paper recycling depot, where he later became manager. After management roles at Van Gelder, Soulier and Grosvenor Waste Management UK, he was appointed director of VRM when Viridor bought Grosvenor in 2007 (Big Interview: 8630847.article).

Profile - Stuart Pohler

Before joining the Confederation of Paper Industries last year, Stuart Pohler was waste management principal consultant at Entec, an environmental and engineering consultancy since amalgamated with Amec. He was responsible for providing technical advisory support to local authorities. Before that, he was waste strategy manager at Ealing Council in London.

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