Following publication of the first quarterly reporting results from MRFs, what can we learn from them and where do we go next? Two panellists who will be discussing the issue at RWM share their thoughts
Simon Weston, director of raw materials, Confederation of Paper Industries
Along with many other people, I would counsel caution in reading too much into the initial figures from the first quarterly MRF reporting results. They are a good starting point but there is still so much more to be done.
At the outset, I think that a ‘well done and thank you’ is due to all those who have worked so hard to put the system in place – the Environment Agency (EA), WRAP, the waste management sector and others have done a great job in turning a vision into a reality. Now we have to hope that there will be enough resolution and resource left in the Government to drive it home.
Despite my initial words of caution, I think there are some interesting and challenging issues raised by the numbers. Firstly, and most obviously, it is clear that only just over 50% of those MRFs believed to be covered by the legislation have registered with the EA.
This is simply not good enough, and freeloaders and laggards need to be whipped in quickly. Moreover, I cannot deny the suspicion that the 80 or so MRFs still to notify the EA are the ones with most to hide.
Even with such a limited sample size, the achievements in Wales are notable. The obvious 4% advantage in input quality over English MRFs can probably, even at this early stage, be put down to better communication and collection methodologies. This is an insight into best practice and we should promote it.
Monitoring and improving quality was the primary reason for implementing this Code of Practice. The early numbers demonstrate the potential contamination present in recyclate being presented to MRFs and, let’s be honest, the ratio of material which is sampled against that which is being processed is so small as to make it beyond statistically ‘insignificant’.
This is a deficiency and weakness that all stakeholders understand, and we must work to ensure that it is not an escape route for unscrupulous MRF operators.
Overall, the Confederation of Paper Industries welcomes this first quarterly report with the hope that, as the system matures, it will deliver demonstrable, measurable and continuous improvement in the quality of secondary materials from MRFs.
Victoria Hutchin, senior consultant, resource efficiency and waste management, Ricardo-AEA
The MRF quality sampling requirements were introduced in order to correct a perceived market failing in the commodities market. It was widely suggested that the MRF code would result in higher material values due to improved quality. But the downward trend in material values has continued, with many of the core items collected at the kerbside realising considerably less income than 12 months ago.
Initial results show that only 92.5% of incoming material consists of target items and 5.9% of this, although recyclable, consists of non-target materials. The primary purpose of a MRF is to separate target materials from one another, not to remove contamination in order to turn poor quality inputs into high quality outputs.
The key challenge for councils is in finding the money to continue communicating to residents in the face of austerity. As MRF operators scrutinise the data and determine likely causes for output quality failing to make the mark, they may be looking at their material sources and setting more challenging contamination limits.
If local authorities take the approach of doing nothing to engage with residents, potentially they could be subject to more challenging penalties if their material is of poor quality, resulting in higher long-term costs.
From the data, material outputs had an average of between 8% and 3.3% contamination depending on the material stream. These findings clearly demonstrate that quality standards for some materials are falling short of required standards for reprocessors, and the Resource Association believes that the cost of dealing with such contamination is at least £50m a year. Evidently there is more that needs to be done.
This is only the first tranche of data, and there have clearly been some challenges for facilities in interpreting the requirements – indeed, queries were raised in relation to all data returns. There also appear to be ongoing compliance issues, with some operators notably missing from the portal data. A total of only 90 MRFs had notified the regulator and fewer still had actually submitted data.
It will take 12-18 months before we will have sufficient data, and have addressed the initial reporting problems, in order to be able to draw real conclusions about the quality of material entering and exiting MRFs. However, at a local level, the data will be a vital tool to enable operators to communicate effectively with their suppliers about the quality of their materials.
- Simon Weston and Victoria Hutchin are speaking at RWM’s Local Authority Theatre at 15:30 on Tuesday 15 September