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You only get out what you put in

Over recent years most of the UK manufacturing industry has adopted world class manufacturing techniques to ensure they remain competitive in global markets and produce the consistently high quality products demanded by their customers. These products rely upon high quality raw materials.

Despite this, traditional manufacturing is in decline in the UK. The recycling sector will be crucial in supporting future economic growth and resource sustainability of the UK. The post-consumer sector has developed quickly but there is still a need for significant investment in the sector to raise the standard of the materials recycling facilities (MRFs) in the UK.

The recycling industry requires high quality inputs like any other industry. Like many things in life, invariably you only get out what you put in. And likewise with recycling processes, if you put poor quality items into the system you will inevitably get quality problems. There is no magic formula!

As successful markets for MRF materials rely upon consistent, high quality end products many MRF operators continue to invest in their facilities, striving to improve the quality of these end products. The changing make up of material streams means that recycling operators have to carefully manage the impact on their processes. New and improved technologies, such as screens and optical sorting are helping the situation and this, along with adopting world class manufacturing processes, will assist in moving the industry in the right direction.

To improve resource efficiency and ensure businesses and organisations are managing their waste responsibly, the Environment Agency is changing the way it audits permitted MRF facilities. It is improving the auditing process to find out more information on the quality and quantity of input and output at MRFs, where different waste streams go and what happens to the waste streams when they get to their destination, such as treatment and processing. This is an attempt to reduce waste that includes poor quality, contaminated or badly sorted materials. Low value, poorly sorted waste streams are more at risk of being sent to landfill or illegally exported and often there is a wasted opportunity with this material when presented in this manner.

We need to spend time on improving the input quality of recycling materials, largely achieved by educating the different parts of the supply chain.  Ensuring a consistent quality output requires work on improving what goes in at the front end of the MRF. And this demands input from everyone, starting with packaging designers down to how local authorities and waste management companies encourage householders and businesses to present the items they no longer wish to use.

Packaging designers need to consider the end of life impacts of their designs. What will happen once the packaging has performed its primary purpose, particularly multi-material type products? In their desire to meet recycling targets are local authorities including ‘waste’ that potentially should not be recycled? And how much do householders really know about what to recycle - is there a need to educate people in the future uses and values of the waste they throw away?

Greater consistency of good input materials will result in a higher quality end product that can be used more efficiently and effectively. Manufacturers can use the material output within their processes thus closing the recycling loop. We need to ensure that recyclables perform as well as the raw materials that they are substituting.

Consumers buying products made with recycled content need to be confident of the quality of the item they are buying.  And of course we must move away from talking about waste as rubbish and concentrate on promoting material reuse and recycling as a resource. Perhaps once people realise the real value that this material has it will be treated accordingly. Otherwise poor quality materials will continue to end up in alternative markets, where if presented in better condition, they could have been recycled and more value attained as a result.

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