WRAP chief executive Marcus Gover has said the UK will need to abandon commingled collections to improve secondary paper quality, as China’s import crackdown could lead to the mixed paper grade becoming obsolete.
In response to a letter sent by industry associations urging Defra to respond to China’s restriction on contaminated secondary material imports, Gover said the UK would need to collect cleaner, better quality recycling.
He said: “With China taking 75% of our total recovered paper exports we have to question whether single-stream commingled collections are fit for the future.
“We do now have advances in bin technology that mean a three-box system can occupy the same space as a single commingled recycling bin. In this way, we can make it easier for citizens to separate materials for recycling.”
He warned that the market for mixed papers outside China was “extremely limited”, meaning that the UK would in effect have to phase out the grade if exports were stopped.
He added: “However, higher quality paper collected separately will continue to find markets in the UK, Europe and further afield (including China).
“This may mean that we need to change the way we collect and/or sort paper for recycling – separating newspapers from packaging more effectively in the UK.”
On plastics, Gover said that “we are not currently producing sufficiently high quality products to compete effectively in the future”. He called on MRF operators to up their game.
WRAP says that more than a million tonnes of mixed paper is currently sent from the UK to China a year, accounting for 70% of all mixed paper exports.
The figure for post-consumer plastic packaging is around 180,000 tonnes, which is 25% of exports.
Gover’s letter was sent to the Resource Association, Confederation of Paper Industries, the Recycling Association and the Environmental Services Association.
He also called for a round-table discussion with “key players” from the industry to develop a shared action plan.
UK - China trade in numbers
34%: Proportion of non-hazardous recovered materials sent for recycling globally by the EU, the world’s largest exporter, in 2014. China is the top developing country destination for this material.
14 million tonnes: UK exports of waste and scrap for recycling or recovery abroad in 2015.
4.5 million tonnes: UK exports of waste and scrap for recycling or recovery to China in 2015, more than to any other country we exported to.
74%: Proportion of waste paper UK exported in 2016 went to China - more than ten times as much as went to the next largest export market
55%: Proportion of recovered plastics UK exported in 2016 went to China and Hong Kong - more than six times as much as went to the next largest export market, Malaysia.