It is a long way from the corridors of power in Beijing to UK doorsteps, yet decisions taken thousands of miles away about what China will and will not import may affect which container households use for recycling.
This does not, of course, happen directly – not even president Xi has presumed to tell UK residents which recycling receptacle they should use. But it could happen indirectly as industries see the impact on them of China’s refusal to accept their material for recycling, then look for alternatives and launch well-resourced lobbying campaigns to win official backing.
The paper industry has provided an example with its ‘Our Paper’ campaign, the website of which (http://ourpaper.org) describes it as devoted to “supporting councils in improving the quality and quantity of paper and card collected for recycling”. Its focus, in fact, is persuading councils to collect paper and card separately from other materials to avoid the contamination that reduces the value of materials.
It is understandable that the industry should want purer materials. But setting up separate collections of paper and card where these are presently commingled with other materials would be a costly undertaking for councils and their contractors.
‘Our Paper’ is a joint project by the Confederation of Paper Industries and WRAP, and claims that moving to multi-material kerbside sorting could deliver net benefits to local authorities of up to £400m over eight years. It offers to work with councils to “help you re-evaluate the potential for separately collected paper and card to maintain the backbone of a viable, high-quality recycling collection”.
Resource Association chief executive Ray Georgeson is leading the campaign, and said: “Ensuring ever-improving quality and quantity of paper and card for recycling has never been more important – recent events in China and south-east Asia have shown that starkly.
“Councils may be concerned about the cost of changing their collections, especially if tied to long contracts, and doubt the willingness of residents to co-operate.”
“The message remains simple: paper and card recycling are the backbone of most kerbside recycling services; improving quality and quantity is good for the environment, good for council tax payers and good for British manufacturing.”
According to ‘Our Paper’, only 3.1 million of the 7.8 million tonnes of fibre collected by the UK is reprocessed here in 27 mills. Of the rest, 61% went to China in 2017, but this route will effectively end in 2020 with China’s ban on post-consumer mixed paper imports.
India and Turkey and a few south-east Asian nations have taken some of the material concerned, but they too are looking to restrict poor-quality recyclates, as has already started to happen in Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia.
China’s sudden disappearance as a market for UK material has led, according to ‘Our Paper’, to a reduction in the value of mixed paper, which mainly comes from commingled sources.
But councils may be concerned about the cost of changing their collections, especially if tied to long and inflexible contracts, and doubt the willingness of residents to co-operate.
‘Our Paper’ has warned that if collection contractors see paper as a more difficult material for economic disposal, they may not compete for new commingled contracts or seek to renegotiate existing ones. It also suggested that gate fees at MRFs sorting commingled material might increase as they try to sort this to meet export standards, while mixed paper judged unfit for either UK use or export might be landfilled with those costs passed to councils.
Martin Tett, environment spokesman for the Local Government Association, said all councils collect paper for recycling but added: “Not every council area is currently able to recycle everything due to long-term contracts being held with different companies with different infrastructure.”
Lee Marshall, chief executive of the Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee, said: “Local authorities will consider material prices as a factor when they look at collection options to assess what they think will be the most cost effective method for their area.”