China’s National Sword initiative has left significant challenges for the UK recycling sector in its wake, and the quality of exported recyclable material arriving at Chinese ports has been a key driver of this clamp-down.
The issue of contamination affects value in every part of the supply chain. So I do sometimes wonder why the primary responsibility for influencing behavioural change continues to sit so firmly with councils – particularly when you consider the proportion of the recycling market derived from private sources.
Councils face huge bills for contamination while recycling collectors, sorters, reprocessors and exporters take on the financial risks once material has been accepted at the gate.
From the conversations I had at Larac’s communication workshops at its annual conference in October, it is clear that the contamination issues faced by those we met were all of a similar nature.
The scale of the financial burden placed on already tight budgets is eye-watering, with figures of £500,000 being quoted as the cost borne by one authority alone from contaminated recycling being delivered to a MRF operator.
I asked my local authority counterparts whether or not we really knew what was happening at the kerbside, rather than simply reviewing aggregate outcome measures further down the line.
While most were confident they had a clear, granular picture of the state of kerbside material, it raised a further question about the extent to which collection crews actually reported and acted on contamination as the vital first wave of defence against it.
Suez recently investigated such questions and it resulted in a significant review of our entire processes. We discovered that crews had grown disengaged where they had been reporting issues but were not always made aware of the remedial action taken as a result of their report.
So we introduced a feedback system to provide crews with regular updates on what action had been taken against properties where multiple instances of contamination had been reported. In turn, reporting has increased 400% and remains high because crews can see results of their efforts.
More can and should be done to share best practice between local authorities and those of us who provide services on their behalf, so we can learn from each other.
This is not just about councils and those who provide services: MRF operators and reprocessors also have their part to play. We will not see improvements in material quality if we continue to rely solely on the communication and service budgets of local authorities.
Perhaps it is time for industry to show leadership in providing these vital public information services where the Government is not able to.
Sarah Ottaway is a National Recycling Manager at Suez