Recycling: Now’s the time to consider switching to separate collection

By Simon Ellin | 02 February 2021

For many local authorities, collecting all recyclable materials in one bin has appeared a cost-effective and simple-to-understand method.

Unfortunately, this has also caused a lot of issues for the recycling industry and may well be outlawed by the Government and devolved governments anyway.

Since the beginning of this year, we have seen China’s ban on imports of all recyclable materials, Turkey banning mixed plastics and reducing import quota, new Basel amendments coming into force that make exports of plastics tougher, as well as a current requirement that exports of all plastics to non-OECD countries need to be notified.

In this country, we tend to consume more paper, plastics and metals than we produce, because we import goods from manufacturing centres around the world.

The export market has been, and will remain, a vital destination for UK material so that it can be sustainably recycled.

But we also have a duty to provide a high-quality product to these countries for use in their manufacturing processes. The same applies when we send product to UK mills and recyclers or their equivalents in the EU.

Although it has been delayed, the Environment Bill is expected to focus on improving the quality of recyclate, and just this week the Waste Management Plan for England 2021 highlighted that the Government intends to consult this year on tougher regulation and guidance on separate collection of recyclables.

As an Association, we have recently advocated that separate collection of paper and cardboard should be introduced by all local authorities as a minimum by 2025.

One of the key reasons for this is that paper and cardboard, especially when wet, are a contaminant for other materials but are also easily contaminated too.

The Government also intends to make food and beverage cartons and plastic films core materials for collection by councils under the Environment Bill. Again, these are both contaminants for paper and cardboard as cartons are often made of multiple materials such as paper and plastics, while both cartons and film is difficult to identify by sorting technology when mixed with paper.

By removing paper and cardboard into separately collected bins and containers, we have the benefit of improving the quality of paper and cardboard, but also increasing the amount of materials that can be recycled by the household.

In the upcoming consultations, we will be advocating separate collection of paper and cardboard as a minimum.

But there is also a financial benefit to local authorities in aiming for high quality recyclate.

In WRAP’s Supporting evidence and analysis: The case for greater consistency in household recycling, it states:

‘Financially, paper is the most important commodity and keeping it separate from other materials in order to keep it clean, dry and high quality is important.’

Whether paper and cardboard or other recyclable materials are going to UK mills and recyclers or state-of-the-art facilities abroad, it is always the case that the highest prices are paid for the best quality material.

It makes complete financial sense for local authorities to achieve as much revenue from recycling sales, especially when money is tight as it is right now for many.

With many changes taking place as a result of the Environment Bill including consistency of materials collected and the introduction of a Deposit Return Scheme for bottles and cans, it will be necessary for councils to renegotiate contracts with their waste management providers.

This also represents the perfect opportunity to consider switching to separate collection of paper and cardboard if a local authority hasn’t already got that provision. Indeed, due to the way legislation is headed, it is highly likely that apart from exceptional circumstances, a single bin for all recycling is on the way out anyway.

Simon Ellin is chief executive of The Recycling Association

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