Just under a year go, I wrote the first of these regular columns for MRW. In the intervening time our industry has made some significant changes. And, I’m pleased to say, some significant progress.
That first column examined the strengths and weaknesses of the Waste Review - giving it a bronze medal.
We have started to see an acceptance of the importance of protecting the quality of the waste stream. WRAP in particular should be commended for recognising that, although mixed plastics will one day be an integral part of the waste industry, the current focus must be on harvesting the most high value materials.
Equally importantly the last year has also seen the introduction of mandatory recycling targets, with plastics collection required to increase by 5% every year to a level of 57% in 2017.
Defra has played an important part in both of these achievements. Lord Taylor of Holbeach, the waste minister, has been particularly important in recognising the industry’s concerns and helping to fashion solutions to them.
However, significant hurdles remain to be overcome.
The fact that our current system favours exporters over domestic re-processors so heavily is a travesty, and one which has the potential to destroy a key part of the Government’s green growth agenda.
It makes absolutely no sense that companies who ship our resource overseas effectively receive greater financial reward than companies whom recycle it domestically and can lose up to 50% of their feedstock through wastage. If we are to develop a credible UK industry it is essential that PRNs are valued in such a way to allow for these process losses – simple options to achieve this have been discussed with DEFRA.
Similarly the current Transfrontier Shipment system also undermines the development of the UK industry to the benefit of overseas markets. Without an Environment Agency confirmed maximum contamination level, exporters are able to ship resource with lower purity levels than indigenous businesses, putting them at a competitive advantage.
An equally pressing concern is the suggestion that the forthcoming MRF Code of Practice will only be voluntary when it is introduced later this year. If that is the case the whole initiative will have been fatally torpedoed before it has even got underway. Why would companies choose to self-regulate, putting themselves at risk of being undercut by their competition, when under no legal obligation to do so? They won’t.
As I have written in these pages before, we must create a level playing field. That does not mean introducing nationwide minimum requirements – the very varied sophistication of the UK’s MRF stock precludes that at present. But that’s not to say that we can’t introduce a quality standard for each MRF, ensuring that they are providing the best possible output.
The final piece of the jigsaw remains increased consumer confidence in the process. The key challenge is to increase the public’s understanding of the recycling fundamentals and to ensure they know that the system works.
On this last point there has been some recent progress with the publication of the End Destinations of Recycling Charter by the Resource Association. Aiming to encourage local authorities to give their residents more information about where their waste ends up (and that it is actually being recycled), the initiative has received widespread support from across the industry and should prove a powerful tool in helping to tackle consumer uncertainty, acting as a catalyst for further growth.
Where are we today? We have had some very worthwhile achievements and some positive signs for the future. Equally, there remain crucial points that need to be addressed quickly if we are to make the UK recycling and reprocessing industry an international champion. All in all I think that bronze medal still stands.
Jonathan Short, managing director, ECO Plastics