Blog – Are you ready for the new paradigm in future recycling collection systems and materials quality?

SUEZ recycling and recovery UK’s Dr. Adam Read and CIWM’s Helen Chaplin explore the issues presented and debated in the most recent webinar of the joint SUEZ and CIWM series, this time concerning future recycling collection systems and materials quality.

As the UK resources and waste management policy landscape evolves, there is both an increasing drive for better quality recyclate throughout the supply chain and a growing recognition that cheap collection services will not be the norm when producer funds flow through a new Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) system from 2023. So now is an ideal time to be considering what the evolution of kerbside recycling might look like in terms of core materials, types of container, service provision and most importantly, the quality expectations of these new systems. After all, a key step to delivering a more circular economy is maintaining the supply of high-quality materials for recycling and reprocessing, and in order to deliver this many UK collection systems will need to reassess how they are designed and perform in this new system.

While comingled collections have been the mainstay for most local authorities over the last 15 years, and can result in higher participation rates, they are often linked with lower quality recyclate and higher rates of contamination. By separating recyclables into material specific streams at source (using separate containers) we can increase recycling volumes and the quality of the materials, reducing the amount of secondary processing required before the materials are sent for treatment.

In this webinar, our panellists Sarah Ottaway (SUEZ recycling and recovery UK), Kristy Spindler (South Gloucestershire Council), Lee Marshall (LARAC), and Tom Campbell-White (DS Smith Recycling) discussed both the challenges and opportunities associated with the planned reforms of EPR and consistent recycling collections in England for capturing materials for closed loop recycling.

Our panellists gave their views on the topics and were probed by the audience with questions. The audience also responded to a number of polls to test current sector opinion – the results of which revealed many uncertainties and concerns around future collection recycling systems, but some of the take away messages were very much aligned.

Does materials quality still matter?

This webinar kicked off with an initial discussion on materials quality in the collection system. Sarah believed that quality will be critical in recycling service design going forward, but the level of importance will be determined by a number of stakeholder decisions in the next few years surrounding certain policy reforms. However, there was little debate across the panel that under EPR we will need more, higher quality materials to ensure the system works, and that the packaging tax will be a huge influence in creating new demand for recycled content and homegrown feedstocks.

Tom suggested that one of the central aspects of any circular economy is keeping quality resources at the heart of the system. “For us, as a reprocessor and a manufacturer of packaging, we think that quality is absolutely fundamental throughout the system.”

Lee concurred, reminding everyone that quality sells and quality recyclate are still finding end markets whilst poorer materials are struggling. However, he concluded that ‘the economics of the recycling market are complicated and that the quality that does sell doesn’t necessarily cover the increased costs of communication to residents or collection methods to ensure the quality’ – so why bother aim for higher quality?

The first poll tested the concept of whether the UK should mandate quality requirements or standards throughout the system, including at the kerbside with residents and business. The overwhelming response was ‘yes’, with 90% agreeing the need for quality to be driven at all stages through the supply chain.

Kristy thought the result of the poll was interesting, as she believes quality needs to be followed through every single step of the process – from the materials presented at the kerbside, to the collection crew, to how it gets tipped and moved through the sorting and reprocessing steps. Sarah took this argument a step further, stating that ‘you can’t police contamination in a comingled environment’ and as such the next question presented itself: will it still be possible to achieve high quality levels of recycling with comingled collections?

Is the sector capable of providing feedback to businesses and households on quality?

Kristy proposed that the opportunity for direct feedback does exist. As people’s interest in recycling grows and end destinations for these materials increase, the opportunity to influence people will also grow, whether it be at home or at work. South Gloucestershire Council publishes all its information on their website, including how much is collected, what the quality is and where it all goes. They also make the information available in newsletters and leaflets to the residents and promote some of the key information on social media. Sarah agreed with Kristy that there are processes out there to help engage with consumers directly, but it’s how they are embraced and utilised by the system that varies – and that often comes down to resources and budgets!

What are the options for future effective recycling systems?

Sarah proposed that we must look at local systems, regional support networks, and also the national picture to make sure we work within the system to drive change that provides the most effective outcomes for everybody. And, in order to bring about this change and to achieve the desired outcomes, the sector must work together as it is so interconnected. Kristy believes that recycling has to be the easiest thing for an individual to do, so let’s not overcomplicate the kerbside experience. Sarah agreed, but also suggested that we must encourage the general public to fully consider their part in the value chain, as current recycling levels, participation rates, and quality metrics all suggest a degree of disengagement and disinterest.

Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR)

Sarah mused that EPR is going to result in producers becoming key new stakeholders in the entire recycling system, including collection. As such, they will be keen to see their products recycled because of the financial penalties for their products and packaging that are lost from the closed loop system. As such, we asked the audience a second poll question: will the new EPR system get money to all relevant parts of the system to deliver the new targets?

Clearly the audience were somewhat split in their view with most uncertain, rather than certain of success or failure – which isn’t unexpected as the second stage of consultations on EPR are due later this year and will focus on the governance, finances and reporting issues that to date, have been little more than conceptual. Tom suggested that under a new EPR system more money will be available (up to 10 times what producers are paying in the current system and up to £1-2billion in additional revenues) to cover the full cost of collecting and reprocessing material, and he stressed that quality is central to this new system ensuring that materials keep flowing within a circular economy. He believed that the money in the new system shouldn’t just be for collection because there are parts of the reprocessing sectors that will need to have money available for innovation and improved performance. Tom went on to say that DS Smith and others want to be supporting the industry with creating new ways of handling and reprocessing difficult to recycle materials, but at the moment it doesn’t make commercial sense.

Sarah added that data is going to be vitally important to the whole process. The funds need to flow in the right direction, to the right places, to ensure new systems, services and infrastructure are delivered and that will rely on new and better data. In addition, the new body (yet to be determined) managing the EPR process has to manage and regulate this flow of finances fairly so will be heavily reliant on transparent data systems and reporting tools.

Packaging Tax

Sarah suggested that the recycled content tax for packaging is going to increase demand for more plastic packaging to be harvested. This will increase prices and potentially increase payments through the EPR mechanism, which will should make it financially attractive to collect a broader range of materials, but that this will need to be aligned fully with the proposal for consistent collections.

Deposit return scheme (DRS)

Sarah worried that DRS will remove valuable materials that are currently financing local collection services, such as aluminium and PET. She is concerned it will limit operational efficiency as collection vehicles will be driving around empty, and require new collection routes, or new materials to be collected to maximise each ‘pass’. The panel discussion considered materials that could be included in a DRS, and it was suggested that it would be possible to collect materials such as drinks cartons and flexible pouches as local authorities don’t collect them already, so this wouldn’t be detrimental to existing services.

Direct charging

Another suggestion that was debated was ‘pay-as-you-throw’. Lee questioned how to finance the changes and improvements needed so producers don’t shoulder all of the additional burden, on top of the increases they are going to face under EPR. Lee proposed that now was the time to revisit direct charging and include this when modelling future collection systems. He continued that ‘this would enable local authorities to charge residents for the residual waste they dispose of, and not their recycling’. This would result in having direct charging alongside producer funding which would ensure the recycling services have financial resources to make sure they’re fit for purpose, and has the added benefit of bringing about behaviour change from residents. However, Sarah believed pay-as-you-throw systems will create a wealth divide, as those that can afford to throw away waste will keep doing so…….

What is the role of the local authority in future collection systems?

Kristy from South Gloucestershire Council was confused about what the future of recycling collections will mean for her local authority. She stated they almost hit a 58% recycling rate in 2019 and have invested a lot of money in consistent collections which means they may lose out on future central government funding to enable changes to happen – the curse of the early adopter? Kristy questioned the role local authorities will play in an EPR-led system, and whether they will miss out on some of the funding from the brands. She and Lee acknowledged that DRS is also a big threat for local authorities as it will take the really valuable materials out of collections, leaving the more materials that are expensive to dispose of. Kristy argued there is a lot that local authorities can bring to the table beyond their operations or client function, in terms of understanding their local populations really well and appreciating local environments (from traffic hot spots to illegal activities etc.). In summary, for any local authority trying to do long-term future service planning, it’s quite a challenging time at the moment. None of the panel could disagree.

What is the brands role in the future collection system?

Tom believed the brands are trying to understand how they can play a bigger part in recycling, reprocessing and the circular economy. He also suggested that brands have got a much bigger role to play in citizen engagement. He indicated they want to, and have started to, engage in lots of ways already as DS Smith get enquiries every week from brands about materials recyclability for different fibres, so many of the brands and retailers are looking to move away from plastics, and are trying to figure out how they can use new types of fibres or use fibres in different ways, and they’re coming to DS Smith to try to figure out this conundrum. Sarah said the same was true for packagers, designers and large brands who are approaching SUEZ to better understand how their materials pass through current systems, and to discuss possible materials changes, design options and new ways of harvesting materials.

What is the role of the public in future collection systems?

Sarah believed the public are ready to start doing the right thing, and SUEZ have worked with many local authority clients to deliver nudge campaigns, communication campaigns and intervention campaigns for some time.

Sarah also argued that having the right system, communicating effectively, and having the right nudging behaviours to support residents when they don’t get it right, will all be fundamental in driving system change. But as the panel agreed, we must identify what these are for fear of confusing the public even more! We can see how well nudge-type campaigns can deliver desired behavioural changes, and source segregation recycling systems enable direct nudging around contaminants, bad habits and misinterpretation of what is recyclable or not, and ‘we can show people exactly where they’re getting it wrong in the containers left at the kerbside’.

Is there still a place for comingled collections?

On prompting from the chair, Tom felt there was still a place for comingled collections in the UK post-2023, but suggested it depends on how the picking lines operate: if they can reach the quality standards desired by the reprocessesors and manufacturers, then it shouldn’t be a problem. Lee agreed and suggested that we need to become more intelligent with mechanical technological separation of some wastes. Tom explained about the technology they use to ensure a high quality and low contamination rate in their paper bales, but he concluded that their experiences with near infrared technology is showing that source segregated material more easily meets the quality standards of the market than comingled.

Sarah suggested comingled collections will still be needed in very urban and very rural areas as it’s the most cost-effective way to collect material. However, she suggested that comingled collections are also going to need the right incentives to drive up their quality from today’s levels, or else the material may never be recycled.

Lee proposed that through a combination of better product design and technological advances in materials recycling facilities (MRFs) we should get better at separating these resources from each other in a way that makes them usable for the likes of DS Smith, and expects necessity to drive invention.

It was at this point that we asked a third poll of the audience: where are the biggest opportunities in the proposed system for improving recyclate quality?

Lee thought that in this case ‘asking the audience’ had delivered results that mirrored his own expectation, stating that if we can get the residents doing everything right then the collection design system will largely take care of itself. However, he believed we don’t talk enough about how comingled collection relies more on the sorting at the MRF rather than sorting at the house, and perhaps we need to open up this debate to see who is willing to take on this responsibility or pay for it to be managed by third parties later in the system.

Should we have a standardized collection service across all councils?

Lee announced he would be pleased to see collection of consistent materials across all councils, referring to Wales, who already have a standardized collection. However, he stated that according to DEFRA statistics for England, consistency on dry recycling is only going to add about 1% to the national recycling rate whereas food waste will be the biggest uplift with a 5% increase. Lee also noted that if you adopt one system of collection you will introduce inefficiencies at some point in the system. Councils traditionally collect materials the way they do because it’s the most efficient and cost-effective for their area and their composition.

Which metric will future recycling collection systems be based around? Should we focus on net carbon zero instead?

Kristy was confused about which metric to chase and how it will then play out into future collection service design and performance. She stated that in order to push the recycling rate up, the services offered need to be expanded to other marginal materials. However, if you are trying to aim for net carbon zero then you will need to look at completely different material streams. Kristy mentioned that when she looked at carbon opportunities in her collections, the focus would need to be on textiles, plastic and food, yet they’re less than 15% of her current recycling rate. And with more local authorities declaring a climate emergency, carbon neutrality is becoming a higher driver and perhaps a better indicator of future system design imperatives.

Lee stated that recycling will always be part of the solution to achieving net carbon zero, however it’s not the only answer. He argued that we must start with product design rather than recycling which leaves local authorities in the middle of the chain as they don’t manufacture the products and have very little influence over the end markets. This means local authorities can only collect what is produced and take it to someone who has got a use for it. Additionally, Lee believed that if products are designed better and designed with lower carbon in mind then they will be designed to be recycled (or even reused) meaning the resources can be kept in use.

However, if the metric is recycling rates and England wants to get the same recycling performance seen in Wales, then Lee believed England will need to fund in the same way as Wales because “high recycling ultimately costs.” The Welsh government and local authorities have put significantly more money in to getting the targets than in England.

What will materials look like post-Covid 19?

Lee suggested that it’s difficult to predict what material quantities will look like after Covid-19, as the current tonnages and composition are a direct result of people being at home. With places such as pubs and bars being closed there is an increase in glass and cans which is likely reduce once they reopen. However, people are getting used to home deliveries which might keep the increases high on materials such as postage packaging.

Kristy thought we would see more innovation for packaging as a result of increased home deliveries. She queried the behavioural changes that we are seeing particularly around consumerism, and questions whether we will still buy as much post Covid-19.

Sarah will be interested to see the shift that Covid-19 brings to the commercial and industrial collections in terms of materials, and what happens to what is collected. She also queried why we can’t bring our recycling behaviours from home into the workplace.

What next?

Bringing the discussion to a close, the chair asked the panellists what change they would like to see to drive forward this agenda more effectively and possibly more quickly?

Tom would like to embrace the circular economy more, stating that everything needs to work together from product design, collection systems, managing quality, to consumer engagement and better data.

With EPR funding 50% of collection costs for an average local authority, Sarah questioned whether producers become the customer or one of the customers local authorities need to consider in their system design.

Kristy really hopes to see a green recovery from Covid-19 that addresses net zero and climate emergencies, with lessons learnt that can be applied going forward.

Lee suggested that we need to get the funding formula right so everyone involved is happy with it. He recommended we need to get on with the next stage of government consultations and get the details sorted so the sector can start planning all the changes.

With so much uncertainty, and questions raised during the webinar, it became clear that we need to get on and make the ambiguities more certain before we can make progress.

Huge thanks to all the panellists for their honesty and insights, and to the audience for so many questions, and for participating in the polls.

To register for future webinars in this CIWM and SUEZ series click here, and we look forward to your questions on the online sessions in the coming weeks. If you are a CIWM member you can also discuss this topic and other current issues on Connect.

Written by: Dr Adam Read (External Affairs Director, SUEZ recycling and recovery UK) and Helen Chaplin (Technical Development Executive, CIWM)

Watch the recording of the webinar here.

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