When I was kindly invited by Cycle Link International to visit China and take part in a seminar on recycling quality, I jumped at the chance.
With it becoming increasingly clear that China has greater options from where to source material, including its rapidly developing domestic market, it was a great opportunity to talk with colleagues from China and across the globe about quality, how they are improving theirs and the lessons we can learn from them.
While there, I took part in discussions on quality with colleagues from China, US, Japan, Germany, Netherlands, France, Spain and Australia, as well as UK colleagues from Cycle Link, Biffa and DS Smith, along with Chinese Inspection and Quarantine (CIQ) officers plus the managers of Chinese paper mills.
I visited the port to see material in containers from the UK, and I freely inspected paper bales from across the globe at the Zhejiang Ji-an Mill in Jiaxing. Ji-an, like Cycle Link, is owned by Anhui Shanying Paper Industry Co.
One of the key lessons I learned is that the Chinese mills think quality is improving, but it needs to get even better.
Given the choice, mills would buy only Japanese and Chinese domestic material, which they consider to be the best quality or, in the case of the latter, easier to access.
After that, Germany is ahead of the UK, although it exports little, while countries such as the US and Netherlands are seen on a par with the UK.
However, with shorter shipping times and more virgin content in its fibre, US material takes preference over European.
At the Ji’an mill, we were given free rein to inspect the stored bales of cardboard, mixed paper and sorted office paper.
One of the first bales I looked at was a UK bale. Unfortunately, a nappy was sticking out of it. It is not right that we are sending contamination like this within a bale of mixed paper. The overall condition of the bale was poor, with high levels of out-throw and I would estimate it would have been above the 1.5% threshold.
Seeing a nappy in a bale proves that the entire UK supply chain has to take responsibility for this – from the householder, to the local authority, the waste management companies and the MRFs – to ensure nappies and sanitary waste does not get mixed with paper.
We have to avoid sending such poor quality material to China. When compared with Japanese material, which was much purer, it was an embarrassment to see a bale like that.
But we should not beat ourselves up too much. I saw other bales of excellent quality from the UK, proving that we can get it right when we want to. I also inspected bales from countries like the US and Netherlands that contained high levels of out-throw, although none of these contained a nappy.
Another problem raised by the mill managers and CIQ officers was the high levels of moisture within paper bales. If bales are in containers for up to eight weeks on the sea, passing through warm destinations, the organic nature of the paper means that high moisture levels can make the fibre degrade or mould and fungus spores appear.
This can lead to, at best, a time-consuming moisture claim from the mill group or, at worst, the material can be quarantined and destroyed as a public health issue.
If the UK wants to continue being a prime destination that Chinese buyers head to, we have got to be up with the best and put quality first. We are in competition with countries from around the world, and they are working hard to improve the quality of their material. We have got to do the same.
Simon Ellin, chief executive, Recycling Association