Local authority waste infrastructure

There is a basic issue about what is and isn’t recyclable. Lee Marshall, of the Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee, explores current sorting infrastructure and reprocessing capacity in the UK

In the not too distant past the waste world rarely made the national headlines unless there was an issue about weekly collections of bins. That has all changed in the past 18 months or so and not a day seems to go by without a headline about plastic, exports of waste or littering. In some respects, this focus on the sector could be a good thing but it does not appear to have translated yet into a real awareness by individuals about how their actions, when they purchase goods and then throw items away, has the biggest bearing on the situation. So far, we appear to have calls on retailers, producers, councils and other organisations to take action but no great upsurge in recycling levels as a result of individuals changing behaviour.

All this interest does not change the basic principle of waste management, you need to get stuff people don’t want and ideally give it to people who can use it, be it through direct reuse or after a process has got a material into a usable form for processing into new products. This requires a series of operations: collecting the material from households, sorting it into different material types and then processing it into something that can be used in a manufacturing process. And all these require various bits of infrastructure that can be long in development, costly and not very easy to change or update.

The pace of mobilising waste infrastructure can be at odds with the pace at which packaging material and product development appears to be able to move, driven by the large influence of the huge retailers as they look for commercial advantages and cost efficiencies. Packaging technology has been very good at developing solutions to protecting the products inside but has been less interested in how that packaging could be recovered and recycled at the end of its life. This has meant the sorting infrastructure of the waste industry has not been able to keep pace with these developments, leaving some plastics tricky to identify and with limited markets having been developed to then recycle them.

The price for recycled materials
There is a basic issue about what is and isn’t recyclable. If you ask most material specialists and packaging technologists they will tell you that nearly all the materials and products they design are recyclable, at least technically. For technically read ‘in theory’. The reality is that something needs to be recyclable in an economically viable manner for it to actually get recycled. So, do the costs of collecting, transporting, sorting and processing a material get covered by the price a manufacturer is willing to pay for it? This may be a moving feast as recycled materials are competing against virgin materials in this respect and the price of virgin materials can ebb and flow as can the demand and price for recycled materials.

The start of 2018 saw severe restricts placed on material that exported to China for recycling. China up to that point had been a huge global consumer of recycled material and a destination for plastics and paper from the UK, and many other countries, including vast volumes from the USA. Paper had been exported as a mixed grade, so it contained newspapers and magazines, brown card, grey card and other paper. This was all clean and ok and, in some instances, would be further sorted into the different streams once in China. Not all paper products are the same, grey card and other paper is not good for making newsprint or brown card and brown card is best suited for production back into cardboard boxes. The restriction though in effect meant that this mixed stream was not long allowed to be exported into China which left two options, either find a new market, along with several other countries, or undertake extra sorting into the different streams. Either way the prices paid for paper declined.

Several waste companies have chosen to undertake further sorting where their facility allows. For those that had sorting plants not designed to sort into different grades the option was to look at retrofitting the plant to enable this. A simple business decision in some cases, in others the layout of the plant makes it a nonstarter. Except with materials traded as global commodities and prices constantly fluctuating the business case may not be so simple. Machinery and fitting can be hundreds of thousands of pounds with no guarantee of a payback over the sort of period a business would normally expect.

Where extra sorting has been taking place in the UK there is a cost associated with that and this gets passed on the councils who supply the material in the first place. Whilst it may mean they do lose as much as if the material had remained unsorted and gone to a different market it is still a reduced income that comes when councils have spent nearly a decade making budget cuts. It is a situation that has always been there and the markets for various materials have swung before, but with ongoing budget issues and changes in material markets now are more keenly felt.

Local sorting infrastructure
Whilst there is not a direct connection between supplying better quality material and getting a higher price there is certainly a case for councils to look to improve the quality of the material they collect where possible. It may attract a slightly higher price and could also mean there are more end markets available for that material. Producing a quality material is a bit of a dark art though with varying factors that can work or against. One of the key ones is the availability of local sorting infrastructure. Whilst the UK has a decent spread of sorting plants their capacity and capability varies widely and will have dictated largely by the market conditions that prevailed when they were built. This means some might place more emphasis on the separation of the different grades of paper while others might be more focused on the range of plastic polymer types and sorting those. A councils proximity to these plants is an element of luck and so will dictate the materials they ask the public to put out.

Some councils operate collection services that require materials to be less sorted, because they get the public to put them in separate boxes and use multi compartment vehicles to keep them separate. This relies more on the public doing the right thing and still only does an initial sort, so plastics and cans are still together and need further sorting and most have all the paper grades together, sometimes with card separate.

The recently published National Infrastructure Assessment that was published by the National Infrastructure Commission was fairly light on how to tackle the recycling infrastructure issues. More focus was given to increasing food waste recycling through the use of anaerobic digestion that might then negate the need for more mass burn energy from waste plants. On plastics the focus was more on reducing the amount and types of polymers used than how to effectively recycle the ones we have. Good aims but ones that may take a while to work their way through.

In the meantime, without investment in the sorting infrastructure and reprocessing capacity in the UK, councils continue to work hard at communicating the current systems to the households and hope that they will play their part in ensuring that the quality of the materials provided meet the markets specifications. It will take a big policy drive and focus on infrastructure in the forthcoming DEFRA Resources and Waste Strategy to change any appetite for investment and it is not clear if that will be a focus of the new strategy.

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