UK Recycling: A Success Story We Can Be Proud Of

Simon Ellin, CEO of the Recycling Association says it is time to stand back and take stock of what we have achieved with regards to recycling. Not least when it comes to the quality of the materials we are recovering.

The rapid growth of the UK’s recycling industry over the past two decades or so, is a success story that we can all be very proud of. Recycling is now part of our everyday lives and we all have some form of recycling system at our homes and virtually every business or public institution recycles to some degree. Indeed, thousands of businesses have sprung up on the back of the secondary commodity market and it is amazing that we are planning eventually for a future without landfill.

However, I would argue that we are now at a crossroads in our industry, and with Brexit throwing a very murky puddle into the mix, it is time to stand back and take stock of what we have achieved. Not least when it comes to the quality of the materials we are recovering.

Let’s take recovered paper as an example. By recovered paper, I refer to any fibre based product such as cardboard, food packaging, newspapers, magazines, office paper etc.

Recovered paper underpins all kerbside collection systems because its weight to value ratio makes it the most important commodity for a sustainable collection system and in our haste to meet targets that have been thrust upon us (not necessarily a bad thing), paper has underpinned a significant part of our success in moving towards these targets.

Has this come at a price? Are we now the producers of a sub-standard product? The answer probably lies somewhere in between.

China’s Green Fence

Undoubtedly, with the onset of kerbside collections and corporate social responsibility in the retail and general business sectors, we have seen a rapid growth in the collection of materials, and it is human nature that the effectiveness of these collection systems is never perceived as a problem until it suddenly becomes a problem.

I would argue that this seminal moment came with the advent of China’s green fence in 2013. Suddenly, after many years of, one might argue, a laissez faire attitude to quality, China overnight imposed a maximum 1.5% green list out throw limit. Suppliers from across the globe, including the UK, had to stand up, take notice and improve. Since then, and all Chinese buyers will confirm this, quality out of the UK has improved – the market has dictated how we operate.

Despite these tangible improvements, it is imperative that we improve again; that we move from the mid-table of the Premier League to the upper echelons of the Champions League.

Despite these tangible improvements, it is imperative that we improve again; that we move from the mid-table of the Premier League to the upper echelons of the Champions League.

Let me put this in context. In 2015, we collected 8m tonnes of recovered paper. Just over 3m tonnes of this was reprocessed in the UK, leaving just under 5m tonnes that we had to export and 3.7 m tonnes of this was exported to China (circa 10% of China’s requirements), a market we just simply cannot do without.

But, things are changing, and changing rapidly. China is undergoing its own green revolution and resource efficiency is being promoted within. China is growing its own circular economy and is now generating and recycling its own fibre and circa 35% of China’s annual fibre requirements are now sourced internally.

What Does This Mean For The UK?

First and foremost, we need to look after our own mills. For the likes of DS Smith, Kimberley Clarke, Palm, Saica and Smurfit Kappa to compete globally, they need an available and market leading quality fibre – and as an industry, we have a responsibility to deliver this.

Secondly, we need to position ourselves as China’s preferred supplier at a time when globally, as outlined above, they are going to require less and less imported tonnage.

China likes UK material; fibre strength is good (China’s internal domestic supply is not so good); we have an established collection and port infrastructure; the price is right; and quality is OK. And there lies the problem. “OK” is no longer good enough and needs to be transposed into “market-leading”.

The UK must position itself at the top of the pile when it comes to quality to become China’s number one choice when it looks to top up its requirements via imports. If the UK wants a sustainable industry going forward, it needs to position itself as the bastion of quality now. Not in five years’ time, but now.

Things are changing rapidly in the East and we simply have to react.

There are many ways we can achieve this and this includes facilitation by central government, the adoption of the Circular Economy Package despite Brexit, sensible and complementary regulation (my members are not criminals!), and producer responsibility; all of this will help promote responsibility and partnership throughout the supply chain.

Responsibility starts at the producer and ends at the reprocessing mill and all those links in the middle which includes businesses, the general public, councils, waste management companies, brokers and shippers, simply have to work in partnership to get things right.

This is one of the Key Elements of the Recycling Association’s Quality First campaign which was launched last year and which will be discussed at length at the Quality First Recycling Conference taking place on 5 April in London.

Responsibility starts at the producer and ends at the reprocessing mill and all those links in the middle which includes businesses, the general public, councils, waste management companies, brokers and shippers, simply have to work in partnership to get things right.

Councils, facilitated by central government must educate the public. They need to form the right partnerships with their waste collectors and processors to ensure their contracts address input and output quality and when contracts are up for review or renewal, quality has to be placed right at the top of the agenda.

Why not have a league table for council quality? Personally, I’d rather see this than a league table of who has recycled the most!

Let’s just stand back and review what we’ve achieved; where and how we need to grow and most importantly, let’s nurture the fabulous industry we have grown into a sustainable business model for future generations.


 

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