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Society changes and with it demand for paper

2015 was a challenging year for the UK’s paper recycling industry in many ways. The market itself was mostly steady, with prices depressed and hovering close to recovery costs. The economic slowdown in China and the rest of Asia suppressed export demand and generally reduced buying appetite.

Adding to this malaise, there were significant domestic mill closures, both permanent and for machine rebuild, that reduced UK domestic capacity still further. As a consequence, ordinary grades of recovered fibre traded within a limited range of about £25 throughout the year.

The sad and rapid denouement of Aylesford Newsprint at the end of February was not a shock to industry insiders. The collapse in demand for newsprint meant there was always likely to be a mill casualty in the sector sooner or later. It was the first of 13 paper machines announced for closure in 2015, resulting in a loss of domestic capacity of nearly a million tonnes or 20% of total UK manufacturing capacity, and a commensurate loss of outlets for recovered paper.

Demand for paper products is closely linked with social behaviour and this has led to marked changes in the industry during the past 15 years, with the number of paper mills operating in the UK declining from 97 to 47. This trend continued in 2015.

Since 2000, there has been a 40% reduction in demand for newsprint and a 30% decrease in demand for printing and writing papers, as digital media has become more popular. Meanwhile, demand for hygiene products such as tissues has risen by nearly 15%.

Demand for packaging is perhaps most closely linked to economic performance. So, while demand for corrugated papers when measured by weight appears to have flatlined in recent years, square metres purchased has risen by about 15%.

By contrast, in the past 20 years, the recovery of paper and cardboard for recycling has boomed and, during 2015, just over eight million tonnes of paper product was recovered for reprocessing. Of this, 3.7 million tonnes was reprocessed in the UK, while 4.4 million tonnes was sent abroad. This amounted to an overall recycling rate of 67%, a small increase on the previous year.

However, many reprocessors of secondary raw materials are bearing rising costs in procuring, cleaning and preparing raw materials for processing. As collectors have focused on volume and commingling has gained popularity, all of the newsprint mills in the UK, for example, have been forced to implement secondary sorting operations to secure the quality of material they require for their processes. Some have invested in capital-intensive sorting facilities; Aylesford used lower technology picking lines.

With quality in mind, in July the first quarterly MRF results were reported. Early data understandably lacked veracity but, more disappointingly, only just over 50% of those MRFs expected to register with the Environment Agency did so, making some outsiders wonder if they have something to hide.

Yet, even with such a limited sample size, Wales’s achievements stood out. The obvious 4% advantage in input quality over English MRFs can probably be put down to better communication and collection methods. This is an insight into best practice and should be promoted.

In 2014, the European Commission adopted the circular economy package. The core elements for paper recycling were to increase municipal waste recycling targets from 50% in 2020 to 70% in 2030 and paper packaging waste to reach 90% by 2025. Also included was a ban on recyclable waste going to landfill and the requirement to optimise product design.

At the end of 2014, the package was withdrawn with the promise that a revised version would be presented before the end of 2015. At the time of writing, the new document was due in early December.

Of most interest to observers is how the Commission will deal with the ‘front end’ of a circular economy. Opinion suggests that it was not waste management issues that caused the withdrawal of the initial package, but rather the lack of ambition in demanding resource efficiency. It seems likely that ecodesign will feature in the revised package, with resource efficiency features being mandatory in product design and the possible introduction of a product passport. It is likely that actions to ensure products are easy to reuse, repair, recycle and eventually dismantle will also be required.

The vision of a circular economy remains somewhat enigmatic, but it could be the start of something significant, with the potential to change the fundamental paradigms of both business and society. It is probably the most eagerly awaited framework document to emerge from the EU for some time.

Simon Weston is director of raw materials at the Confederation of Paper Industries

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