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Why MRF code of practice is vital and must be mandatory

DEFRA’s announcement on the code of practice was initially due last autumn, but has been delayed while Whitehall carries out a cost-benefit assessment of different options. Chief amongst these is an argument about whether the code of practice should be voluntary, as initially suggested, or mandatory.

As a re-processor it is perhaps not surprising that ECO Plastics believes that it is vital that compulsory measures are introduced, however, this is not simply a question of self-interest.

At its most fundamental level, the scheme is doomed to failure if firms are able to opt out. Because some markets will continue to accept a degree of contamination, companies which choose to comply will be put at a competitive risk against those who don’t and are as a result able to undercut on price. Considerations about sustainability will not be enough alone, it is paramount that we create a level playing-field in order to protect the responsible operators.

However, there’s also a compelling macro-argument at work here. The steadily decreasing quality of the UK waste stream is the greatest threat to the domestic recycling industry.

The latest figures from Recoup (which show a more than 100% increase in the collection of mixed plastics, many of which can’t be processed, in twelve months) and ECO Plastics’ own experience (where we have seen a drop of around 20% in the amount of plastic bottles we receive in a typical bale over the last four years) both demonstrate this all to clearly. Perhaps more stark is the fact that two plastic bottle recycling companies have gone out of business this year as a direct result of diminishing quality.

This not a problem effecting the plastic reprocessing industry alone. We see our colleagues in the paper reprocessing industry having to import waste paper to secure the required quality while at the same time we export 4.5 million tonnes a year! Glass collections have risen dramatically over the past few years but the amount ending up back in new UK glass has reduced due to the deterioration in quality. 

Clearly it is absolutely essential to the industry’s long-term health that we address the issue – and the introduction of a mandatory code offers a highly effective method of doing so.

Of course there’s an argument that compulsory targets will put other parts of the waste chain under strain. This is an entirely reasonable claim in my view. But equally, they will be just as at risk if all the re-processors have gone out of business and they have no one to sell to.

There is an often quoted desire to have nationwide specifications - in my view this is impractical at this stage due to the varying technical capability between MRFs. A modern MRF will be capable of producing material of a higher quality than a five year old one.

I would therefore suggest the quality standard be MRF specific, the MRF sharing those specifications with its customer base. Other measures, such as independent third-party verification of output through a year-round programme of random inspections, will also be important in ensuring the code’s success. Quality complaints would be picked up through the operator’s internal quality system and be reviewed as part of third party verification. 

Over time a minimum quality standard from MRFs will eventually be created and in doing so will allow domestic collections to become more uniform.

Finally a code of practice could help to resolve another major bug bear of the industry.

Our research has shown time and again that one of the main barriers to developing the industry further is consumer’s lack of confidence. A large part of this stems from the fact that, depending on the location, next door streets can find themselves able to recycle entirely different products, leaving consumers with the sense that the system is entirely arbitrary. Unless they feel that there is some consistency in collection, it is very difficult to convince people that the infrastructure is operating efficiently and their waste is actually being recycled.

Introducing minimum quality levels for MRFs would provide a neat solution to what is a major challenge for the industry, and one that could be delivered without major root and branch changes to the entire system.

Jonathan Short, chief executive, ECO Plastics

Readers' comments (1)

  • Mandatory is one thing but it also has to be good enough. It won't help if it simply validates existing poor performance. For that reason I have doubts about making the standards MRF specific. I don't think that will create enough of a driver for improvement. There may be a case for some limited banding of standards so that MRFs are categorised as say 1 star or 3 star. And there would need to be some limit on how long MRF's could stay in the bottom band.

    And we do need a greater sense of urgency particularly to sort out the issues around plastics.

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