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Councils face 'force majeure' over kerbside contracts due to China


Local authorities are being forced to alter their kerbside collection services to cut costs, as contracts are renegotiated due to falling material prices.

Since the Chinese restrictions on imports of a range of waste materials came in, prices for materials such as mixed papers have fallen to zero or below

Many recyclers have found themselves unable to supply material that meets China’s strict contamination limits, and councils have been blamed by some for supplying poor material from commingled kerbside collections. 

Simon Ellin, chief executive of the Recycling Association, says that mixed papers underpin kerbside collections in terms of weight and that the economics of it no longer stack up.

He said councils are already “desperately underfunded by the Government”, and many have had their contracts renegotiated under force majeure because of the huge market imbalance caused by the Chinese ban.

“Kerbside collections are suddenly becoming unsustainable. That’s where the Government has got to step in and it has been been very lax,” he added.

Ellin also said that local authorities were not taking responsibility for the quality of material going to MRFs. Better education of residents by councils was needed to tackle rising contamination levels, which is pushing up costs for waste management companies.

“Even using the resources they have, in terms of communications and education [councils] haven’t done a particular good job otherwise why would contamination in commingled collections be reaching 20%?” he said.

Ray Georgeson, chief executive of the Resource Association, said: “The danger is we are going to see the withdrawal of council recycling services, which is never good news. But if there isn’t a market for the material, what on earth are they supposed to do?”

As MRW reported, Brighton & Hove City Council has criticised its PFI waste contractor Veolia for recycling only those materials for which there is a guaranteed end market. With China removing a key destination, councils have been put in a difficult position.

There has been little guidance from the Government so far, despite lobbying from various groups. Georgeson said it needed to address the issue with ”some seriousness and urgency”.  

Alarm bells ringing

Philip Mossop, founding director of, started a debate on Linkedin after hearing from a broker that dry mixed recycling is “finished in the UK”. These are some of the responses from waste companies, which have been anonymised:

”Dry mixed recycling in a commingled state as we have known it is over. Tipping locations are closing doors, tightening what is acceptable and increasing costs to dissuade the use of this methodology of collection… Perhaps a cleaner system is now needed.”

“Personally, I can see some big changes on the horizon within the waste industry… I think just recycling the high-value paper and card might be the only way forward for a while. Everything else to waste to energy.”

“Mixed papers has already turned price negative and is set to get worse. There are thousands of tonnes of mixed papers sitting around and stocks growing daily.”

“The MRF we used has not closed its doors to dry mixed recycling as it is not sustainable due to contamination… The industry has led itself into a major issue which will need to change very soon… Maybe reverting back to the simple card and paper collections or segregated recycling is the answer to provide clean materials.”

Readers' comments (3)

  • It is going to be easier to educate the general public if there was a cordinated recycling scheme across the country. Maybe the Goverment should step in now and get recycling back on target, rather than concentrating on detail like paper cups that, in the scheme of things, is not going to make a lot of difference.

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  • Ever since this issue was raised in the light of the existing correctly-placed restrictions by the China to rejecting plastics and paper products being dumped in their back yard because of being tainted with all manner of pollutants, the waste industry has moaned at the problem.

    This is an opportunity which we can solve very easily and we are doing so by helping the PRC solve their own plastics and paper problems with solutions to reduce the hydrocarbons and capture new products from the chemicals contained therein.

    If this country (the UK) was to have behaved in a really positive manner within the EU [European Union] we would have been able to develop this system within the UK as well. However the antithesis of the Government has stopped this full track and now new will be building this in the EU in the Netherlands, Italy, France, Spain and Germany utilising almost €3 Billion of grants.

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  • “Even using the resources they have, in terms of communications and education [councils] haven’t done a particular good job otherwise why would contamination in commingled collections be reaching 20%?”

    I find this particular quote from Simon Ellin to be immensely unfair. It is a well-known fact that one of the first things to be cut from local authority waste budgets is communication. Some authorities work under very challenging circumstances where a large proportion of their population is transient, does not speak English as their first language and where property types such as flats and HMOs make up a high proportion of the housing stock. Challenging circumstances such as these need ongoing targeted communications which is labour intensive and costly. Many authorities simply cannot afford to fund it under ever decreasing budgets. Perhaps the private sector would like to put some money where their mouths are and work with their clients to improve the quality rather than pointing the blame. We all have much to gain from improved quality.

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