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Why councils should be more worried about waste

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A guest briefing from Robin Latchem, editor of LGC’s sister title Materials Recycling World, about an impending crisis in the waste market that will hit councils

These are worrying times for those in local authority waste departments collecting household plastics and paper. When once these secondary markets were a lucrative revenue stream, they are becoming increasingly marginal with truncated end markets and posing a significant threat to communities.

Comfortable long-term contracts – usually among the biggest a council will sign up to – are under strain from a profound and unexpected policy shift in China. A year ago, around two-thirds of UK waste paper plastics made its way to Chinese manufacturers. This arrangement was disrupted when Beijing said environmental concerns meant the import of some material grades would be banned and other consignments would be turned back unless there was a radical improvement in the contamination rate.

Unfortunately for the UK, two of the hardest-hit grades are ‘mixed papers’ and post-consumer plastics, both of which feature prominently in household recycling bins. With China such a dominant market, alternatives are not plentiful. Some of the councils’ business partners were ahead of the game, saw the writing on the wall last year and switched to other markets such as Vietnam. The contamination rules only formally kick in next month so, with shipping times of around six weeks, it is only now that most exporters and their client councils are facing a brick wall.

Some municipal recycling facilities (MRFs) are reporting plastic contamination levels of 12% – compare that to the new Chinese thresholds of 0.3–1.0%, depending on material.

According to Dr Tim Johnson, technical director of waste manager Tetronics International, “China will still accept high quality waste plastic. The problem here is that the UK waste industry has evolved over recent decades on the assumption that China will take our poorer quality waste and now cannot separate plastics efficiently enough to meet their demands. And it’s not that the technology does not exist for doing this, just that the cost of upgrading waste sorting equipment makes it uneconomic.”

More ‘source segregation’ by householders tends to yield higher quality ‘recyclates’ for councils to sell on but the trend is increasingly towards commingled (cheaper) collections with fewer bins and recyclates chucked together, usually generating lower quality but greater tonnages – the metric by which local authorities’ recycling is judged. Never mind the quality, feel the weight.

Lower contamination is possible for those grades still being accepted, such as cardboard packaging. But no amount of smarter recycling will persuade the Chinese to take post-consumer plastics: generally, the household packaging that is typically multiple polymers or contaminated with organic material such as food.

Alternatives once the other smaller markets are sated are limited. There are suggestions that landfill sites could be used to ‘store’ unwanted recyclates until we find new ways of processing them. But landfill is both expensive (landfill tax at £86.10 a tonne) and is presumed to be ‘not the done thing’ under the waste hierarchy. Anyway, such ‘landfill mining’ is in its infancy and the volume of available space in the UK is shrinking as sites close.

Unwanted materials can be incinerated to ‘recover’ the energy. Setting aside the charged debate over the suitability of energy-from-waste technologies, the UK doesn’t have the capacity to accommodate all this extra diverted tonnage. New plants can take up to 10 years to become operational, especially as they generate much heat from environmental protest groups and get bogged down in planning stages.

So if the quality is either not affordable or not achievable – or both – and the usual disposal methods of landfill and energy recovery are unavailable, what next?

After the BBC Blue Planet television series, plastic is very much in the spotlight. But secondary paper is the bigger worry in the waste industry just now, with anecdotal and increasing reports of stockpiling. One senior executive of a leading waste management company told me he feared seismic implications in the coming weeks and months.

Quite apart from the cost to business of storing materials it cannot sell, such piles can be extremely antisocial, pose significant fire risk and increase the potential for criminal activity. None of which boosts public commitment to recycling.

So we have: straitened councils with even less cash than they expected; material they can’t shift; and citizens who are in danger of becoming increasingly sceptical about what happens after they put the bins out. And if we do end up with fresh piles of unwanted waste this, too, will rebound to some degree on councils which are held accountable for local wellbeing and usually pick up the pieces (literally) when such sites are abandoned by failed businesses or waste criminals. And, as if that wasn’t enough, communication budgets seeking to get the right item in the right bin are also being hit.

The Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee, which represents local authority recycling officers, is working hard to get political buy-in to what some stakeholders see as the biggest threat the secondary materials markets in the UK has faced. Therese Coffey, the Defra minster responsible, concedes it is a challenge but won’t accept it is a crisis. Not just yet, perhaps, but something has to give.

By Robin Latchem, Materials Recycling World editor

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