Setback for mills on separate collections of waste paper

An attempt by paper mills to force local authorities to drop mixed-material recycling schemes in favour of paper-only collections has been headed off - for now - by independent research showing that different methods make little difference to the quality of collected material. But councils could significantly boost their revenue for waste paper if they learned more about the markets for different grades.

Last year, a European standard for various grades of recovered paper was published as the new British standard BS EN643. The document effectively requires the complete absence of contamination - except where "a certain proportion of unusable materials is agreed between purchaser and supplier."

Shortly afterwards, the paper industry issued a draft guide to the standard which said that, within a few years, paper from material recycling facilities would not be accepted, with only paper collected separately from other recyclables being regarded as suitable.

The industry also called for collection of mixed paper, whether in bring banks or kerbside containers, to be phased out.

The document worried local authorities, many of which had just launched kerbside schemes for commingled dry recyclables and were considering mixed-paper schemes as a simple way of meeting their weight-based recycling targets for household waste (ENDS Report 327, p 19 ). Despite these concerns, the final version of the guide was issued largely unchanged earlier this year.

The situation prompted WRAP, the Government's Waste and Resources Action Programme, to conduct a study to assess the quality of waste paper produced by various collection methods against the recovered paper grades in the standard.1As part of the study, 560 paper and board samples were collected from 80 local authorities, covering a representative cross-section of kerbside and bring collection systems.

Not surprisingly, the study found that nearly all of the samples failed to meet the standard's criteria - because zero contamination is impossible. But given that the standard is non-mandatory, it recommended that authorities agree commercial terms with mills based on consignments' "level of proximity" to the standard.

To this end, WRAP will help the paper industry and local authorities draw up guidance on quality requirements which reflects a "balance between the practicalities of municipally-based collection systems, the needs of the reprocessing sector and the specifications included in the standard."

To the surprise of many in the paper industry, the study found that "the perceived poor quality of materials arising from commingled kerbside collection proved unfounded." Overall, "when properly managed and functioning correctly, all collection systems approached the requirements" of the standard.

The paper industry remains concerned that "unless a quality standard for raw material is recognised, much of the extra material collected from households will be unusable."

Asked if the industry accepted the study's conclusions, Kathy Bradley of the Paper Federation said that it "wants to look at the background data. Some members felt that the quality of material went down after an authority started using an MRF, but I think there's an acceptance now that it's not that black and white."

The study also found that authorities could increase their revenue with improved awareness of the markets for various grades of waste paper and board. Some mixed paper consignments, for example, could be consigned as "news and PAMs" - newsprint, periodicals and magazines - and generate over £10 per tonne extra revenue.

The issue highlights the tension between authorities' need to meet demanding recycling targets and the need to maximise the quality and value of collected materials.

Similarly, the glass container industry is concerned that an increase in collection schemes for mixed glass destined for the aggregates market is jeopardising its supply of colour-separated glass. The volume of glass recycled into new containers declined last year for the first time since 1977.

As with waste paper, a WRAP study earlier this year concluded that authorities' lack of market knowledge and poorly worded contracts were impeding progress in glass recycling.

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