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Commingled collections allowed but spotlight is back on MRF code

As widely expected, Defra’s proposed amendments to the waste regulations on separate collection of household recycling will allow waste collection authorities to continue to collect commingled material.

Defra committed to amending the regulations when it secured an adjournment to a Judicial Review brought against it and the Welsh Assembly Government by the Campaign for Real Recycling (CRR) which challenged the legality of the transposition of the regulations from a European directive.

The proposals place greater importance than previously on the quality of recyclable material. The changes to the Waste (England and Wales) Regulations 2011 would mean commingled collections could continue where separate collections are not “technically, environmentally and economically practicable” or necessary to meet “appropriate quality standards”. The amendment incorporates these concepts directly from the EU revised Waste Framework Directive.

CRR is not commenting publicly at this stage while it considers the proposals, which are out for consultation until 12 April in detail. It will have to decide whether Defra’s move leaves enough room to continue the legal challenge. 

But Defra’s suggestions were immediately welcomed by the waste management industry.

Matthew Farrow, director of policy at the Environmental Services Association, said “We believe that local authorities should retain the ability to choose the system that best meets their circumstances, and welcome Defra’s confirmation that this also remains its view. Ongoing uncertainty around the regulations helps no one, and we hope that these revised regulations will be confirmed.”

Former WRAP director of local government services, Phillip Ward, said: “Defra are wriggling to preserve the option of commingled collections”.

“It’s obviously an attempt to get over the embarrassment that they screwed up the first regulations, but not actually change the policy.”

Ward said the issue legally is that the EU directive mandates “separate collections” where practicable, with the objective of meeting the quality standards required by the recyclers. The issue, he said, “will turn on whether the recyclers themselves believe they can get decent quality material on a consistent basis from MRFs.”

And it is on that issue of quality requirements that the government is hanging its proposals, and implicitly nodding towards the anticipated MRF code of practice.

Ward said: “What it seems they are trying to do is pick up the ESA’s MRF code of practice, put that onto a statutory basis, and then argue that anything sorted by a MRF which meets the statutory requirement is good enough for the recycling sector and therefore the bit about separate collections can be waved away.”

One of the problems, said Ward, come from the uncertainty created for anyone investing or planning any kind of collection facility or infrastructure between now and whenever the guidance becomes available. But this, said Ward, “won’t be for some considerable time yet”.    

Ward believes CRR is not impressed with the ESA MRF code of practice as it stands, and is likely to be critical of Defra’s approach.

But the problem for CRR, he added, is that “the [proposed] regulations look to be in line with what the directive requires. But it all turns on what guidance Defra put out on what constitutes ‘technically, environmentally and economically practicable’ criteria.”

Dr Adam Read, from AEA, said the proposals are a “pragmatic” approach. While commingling works, he added, and technology has developed to the point where quality material can be supplied from MRFs, there is still a place for commingling “within a portfolio of service options”. He said pragmatism is the key and local factors have to determine the service provided.

“Commingling may not give you the best quality recyclate. But it can give you a sufficient tonnage of recyclate to make the scheme cost effective, and give a level of customer satisfaction to make sure the system is used.”

“Not forcing it towards source segregation is the right thing to do. Otherwise there would be political furore amongst local politicians”, Read added.

Read said he does not oppose a compulsory MRF code to impose quality standards. “It’s all part of the journey of gently moving the sector towards a sustainable solution. We must have markets for the end material. If there’s not, because of poor quality, that kind of collection cannot continue.”

“It may be that in ten years commingling will no longer be dominant because it cannot meet the quality requirements of the market. But at the moment it can. This is a market-driven economy. So we must let the market, the mills, decide.”

“And what we may end up with, determined by the market, is a hybrid; with segregation for some materials and commingled for others.”

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