Recycling And Its Place In The Circular Economy

Peter Clayson, general manager for business development and external affairs at DS Smith, discusses how following the waste hierarchy and achieving consistency in recycling are essential to achieving a circular economy.

Over the past few months, the energy-from-waste (EfW) debate has remained at the forefront of waste management headlines. According to data from Tolvik Consulting, nearly 10m tonnes of residual waste is now put through energy from waste facilities annually.

With landfill sites closing more quickly than previously expected and more than three million tonnes of refuse derived fuel (RDF) being exported from the UK, certain sectors of the industry are calling for more investment in new EfW sites to close a ‘waste gap’ that is apparently looming. What’s more, local authorities are being urged to embrace alternative waste management agreements – which include tactics such as resource recovery – to prevent a shortfall in disposal capacity.

While the EfW argument continues, we have to make sure our circular economy aspirations do not get left by the wayside. EfW has a place in a 360° waste strategy, but we must maintain our focus on circularity – removing and reducing waste where we can, while ensuring that all materials that can be recycled really are. We don’t want EfW facilities to become the landfills of the 21st Century.

So, what does a fully 360° waste strategy to achieve a sustainable resource loop for the future actually look like?

The Waste Hierarchy

To begin answering this question, we must refer back to the waste hierarchy. Practically, applying the hierarchy can preserve resources, minimise carbon emissions, and prioritise sustainability.

EfW has its role to play, and adds value in generating non-fossil fuel derived energy, but its position in the hierarchy must be remembered. It will have its place in a long-term waste strategy, but mustn’t outweigh in favour of recycling, reuse, minimisation, and prevention. Once you recover energy by incinerating a resource, its value to a circular economy is lost forever.

Developing increasingly circular solutions within nation-state economies will take time. However, we must utilise the thinking behind the hierarchy today in order to achieve the best possible results for the future. The solution is collaborative and must focus on keeping resources in use for as long as possible – not on prioritising the recovery of energy from material that could be re-used or recycled.

The Role of Recycling

Recycling allows us to maximise the value of materials once their original application has come to an end. Rather than removing them from the supply chain entirely, recycling ensures that spent products can be used again – an essential part of the circular economy.

As an integrated, sustainable packaging solutions group, recycling is key to the DS Smith business model. Every year, we manage more than five million tonnes of used paper and packaging for recycling. Much of this material is used within our own paper and packaging production sites, allowing us to deliver a true closed-loop recycling model. We manufacture and supply packaging, before collecting, recycling, and manufacturing back into packaging products – all within a 14-day cycle.

Alongside supplying our paper mills with sustainable feedstock, knowledge gained from recycling has also helped us to evolve our approach to packaging. While many see packaging as waste, we instead see good packaging as an enabler of circular economy aspirations.

When designed correctly, packaging protects products during transit. It helps to protect them on the journey from source to shop, and encourages consumers to buy products, moving them from shelf to home – and, increasingly, from the internet to our homes. Good packaging helps to minimise waste, and is easily recyclable – two elements crucial to a resource-efficient circular economy.

Prioritising Quality

As part of the Circular Economy Package, there is growing pressure to increase recycling rates. Although both positive and achievable if managed correctly, it is essential that an increase in quantity doesn’t lead to a decrease in quality.

If we forget about quality in recycling, then we end up with higher contamination rates. With high contamination comes unusable feedstock for recyclers – meaning that material intended for recycling will end up in energy recovery, or even worse, landfill.

As with any paper manufacturer, we can only make paper from paper fibres – not plastics, glass, metal, or any other recyclable material that can end up in paper and card recycling collections.  Material reprocessors want all recyclable material to reach them contamination-free. Unfortunately, in reality, dealing with contamination in recycling streams is an everyday occurrence.

Balancing rising recycling rates with contamination levels is therefore a key priority. The better the quality, the less waste we produce in the recycling process, and the more circular the resource loop will be. So, how do we minimise contamination and ensure that packaging remains sustainable? Put simply, we need to focus on both quality and consistency, making sure that quality materials are presented for recycling and that we do that in a consistent manner across the UK. 

Consistency in Recycling

In the UK, responsibility for consumer recycling is left to each local authority (LA). Existing infrastructure, available finance, and accessibility are all weighed up to develop a bespoke approach deemed suitable for the area.

As such, the recycling processes for two identical streets situated minutes apart can be entirely different. One authority may segregate food waste, paper and plastics, while another may bulk all recyclables together in one single bin. When considered on a national basis, the notion of good recycling is lost in a maze of alternatives.

A lack of a centralised authoritative message and approach creates a situation that, for the consumer, is confusing. A confusing situation is off-putting. Being put-off leads to disengagement.

Work has already been undertaken to find a solution to the consistency conundrum. WRAP’s Framework for Greater Consistency in Household Recycling in England, for example, set out an ambitious voluntary roadmap to unify our national approach.

Outlining a series of possible formats for recyclable collections, alongside a supporting action plan to help bring a clear structure to local collections, the report demonstrated how standardising the system could drive greater efficiencies – inspiring a rise in rates, while providing significant economic and sustainable benefits.

If we were to achieve national consistency, it would be more straightforward for consumers to recycle. In result, we could drive increased recycling rates while maintaining recyclate quality.

Consistency in Packaging

As with recycling collections, consistency in packaging production and labelling standards is a key influencer for minimising waste and maximising recycling.

Although standardisation is currently supported across Europe through Article 114 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), as part of the Circular Economy Package (CEP) the EU has proposed to change the legal basis of the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive (PPWD) from Article 114 to Art. 192 TFEU (on Environmental Protection).

This seemingly small change could have detrimental effects on products and packaging in the future, because the single market protections of the Directive (under Art 114) would potentially be eliminated. There is a concern that this could lead to more independent national regulations that require different packaging formats and labelling in different countries.

We agree with concerns by many trade associations – including The European Organisation for Packaging and the Environment (EUROPEN) – which believes this move would further confuse the consumer. For businesses operating internationally, this risks yet more complication to production and recycling processes.

Recycling And Its Place in the Circular Economy

As well as maximising the recyclable qualities of products and packaging, achieving recycling process consistency, embracing consistent legislation and educating the consumer about the benefits of recycling, we also need to maximise value across the resource loop – which includes diverting recyclable materials away from EfW.

The coffee cup debate highlights this well. How do we redesign the cups to ensure they are easily recyclable? If we can produce a more recyclable cup, how can we ensure that consumers recycle them? How do we invest in collection infrastructure and equipment capability that allows us to separate out the materials and increase recyclability? We need to address issues across the whole supply cycle.

Coffee cups are just one example of a number of streams that currently do not maximise their recycling opportunity, because the paper fibre is hard to access.

At DS Smith, we have called this approach ‘Supply Cycle Thinking’. Our ongoing activity in this area aims to address the combination of factors that help us retrieve valuable fibre. This ensures that a valuable resource can be recycled into a useful paper product once more, rather than being sent directly to either EfW or landfill.

Our industry currently achieves an 80% paper packaging recycling rate, by accessing the low-hanging fruit that is well designed for recyclability, is understood by the users, and has established collection infrastructure. The next step is accessing the difficult to recycle streams. To achieve this, we need to continue to make it easy for consumers and businesses to recycle.

Embracing a move towards a more circular economy requires multiple waste management initiatives, all working collectively to maximise material retention within the resource loop. The recent commitment by government to produce a new Resources and Waste Strategy in 2018, alongside a pledge for zero avoidable waste by 2050, highlights that recycling is set to play a critical part in our circular economy aspirations.


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