MRF Code of Practice consultation launched

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has today (1 February) published a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) Code of Practice and Quality Action Programme aimed at improving the quality of ‘dry’ recyclates (paper, glass, metal and plastic) from co-mingled collections of household and commercial waste in the UK.

It is hoped that the Quality Action Plan and Code of Practice, now open for consultation, will increase recyclate quality from MRFs to ‘help stimulate the market conditions necessary to improve the quality of the material produced by MRFs so that it can be more readily recycled’, as required under the European revised Waste Framework Directive. 

Indeed, according to the professional advocacy body for the reprocessing and recycling industries, the Resource Association, contamination at MRFs costs the UK £51 million a year.

Code of Practice

Under the new Code of Practice, MRF operators will not be required to achieve recyclate specification targets, but will have to take samples and conduct composition tests on both inputs and outputs. It is proposed that the sampling of input materials should be undertaken twice per week or for every 200 tonnes of input material, whichever is more frequent. Output materials will be sampled weekly, or according to the of material (typically for every 20 tonnes), whichever is more frequent.

The results from these tests would then be made available, for example to those businesses buying the recycling material as well as to local councils and others who supply the material to the MRFs.

Other details outlined in the Code of Practice released today, include:

  • Mandatory compliance with the Code will be targeted at all MRFs with an output of more than 1000 tonnes per annum;
  • Introducing a voluntary system for grading the quality of recyclate for each of the main material streams (paper, plastic, glass and metal);
  • Establishing labelling requirements to make it easier to identify the quality of a consignment as it moves along the supply chain;
  • Establishing a price differential. For example, material which reaches end of waste status may attract a price differential to reflect its ‘high quality and that it is subject to robust quality assurance arrangements’;
  • Exploring the possibility of making amendments to the PRN and PERN system to ‘even out any disparity in the playing field, by applying the same quality criteria when issuing PRNs and PERNs’;
  • Ensuring that by 2014, over 90 per cent of the industry ‘in terms of share of the market, proportion of sites, and number of operators’ are in verified compliance with the MRF Code of Practice on quality;
  • Establishing a webportal with a list of accredited MRFs together with some high-level performance information (e.g. average composition of output materials.

MRF Code of Practice

L-R: Barrie Hargrove, Cabinet member for Transport, Environment and Recycling, Southwark Council; Resource Management Minister, Lord de Mauley; and Estelle Brachlianoff, Chief Executive Officer, Veolia Environmental Services (UK) Plc.

Action Plan

Actions listed in the Quality Action Plan include: 

  • Having the EA ‘explore the potential for improving their enforcement of the waste shipment controls using information on the quality and destination of MRF outputs delivered by the proposed MRF regulations’;
  • Increasing collection of easily recycled plastics such as plastic bottles in the short term and ‘exploring opportunities to improve the recycling and recyclability of harder to recycle plastics in order to help achieve the higher targets in future years’;
  • Developing a registration system for exporters of Green List waste and waste derived products to ‘improve the monitoring of green list exports in the future’. 

If supported by responses from the consultation, the amendment regulations could potentially come into force in October 2013, with MRFs required to measure quality from April 2014. 

According to Defra, achieving the right levels of quality will unlock value to the whole supply chain, attracting higher, more stable prices and resulting in economic benefits not only to all across supply chain, but also to UK Plc as a whole.

If businesses put in place the actions outlined in the MRF Code and Quality Action Plan (thought to cost approximately £13 million), the UK could save approximately £31 million through generating higher material revenue, reduced landfill costs and avoided greenhouse gas emissions.

MRF V-screen

Government intervention ‘make markets work better’ 

Speaking at the Code of Practice launch at Veolia Environmental Services’ Southwark MRF, Resource Minister Lord de Mauley said: “The recycling industry contributes around £3 billion to our economy. Having sufficient quantity of recyclable material is of course important for the markets. The quality of that material is equally important but often overlooked. I want that to change. While some MRFs already provide quality material I want to see this happening more consistently across the industry.”

Noting that it would be 'wrong to put unnecessary constraints to export of material’, De Mauley noted that there was a need to ensure ‘a level playing field between export and import’, and that ‘quality will make export market more secure’.

“I am naturally wary of government intervention, but sometimes we need government to intervene to make markets work better... It’s important to know everyone supports the principle, even though there may be differences in details. For this reason we are consulting to know if we’ve got the balance right and whether the regulations are sufficiently robust.”

The consultation proposes an independent audit will be required once a year by a body 'recognised by the Environment Agency'. Commenting on the EA's role De Mauley said ‘we are talking to them about that and they are very much up for that’.

It is so far unclear about who will be paying for the improved sampling of materials, but De Mauley noted that local authorities would potentially benefit from extra revenue due to improved quality. 

Marcus Gover, Director for Closed Loop Economy at WRAP, added: “WRAP welcomes the consultation on these new regulations aimed at improving the quality of recyclate produced from MRFs and strengthening the UK’s recycling sector. Quality is key to the continued growth and success of the whole recycling supply chain in the UK: this is as much about supporting economic growth as it is about improving the environment. In these challenging economic times, local authorities, waste management companies and reprocessors need to work together to make the most of the UK’s recycling success story.” 

Liz Goodwin, CEO of WRAP, also welcomed the consultation, writing in her blog: 'Producing good quality recyclate is critical if we are to sustain the growth of the whole recycling supply chain, and make sure this success story continues. Quality underpins the collections, infrastructure, and markets upon which our recycling supply chain is based. That’s why I, and many others, believe that the launch of a consultation  on material quality this morning marks an important milestone for the sector.'

Welsh operators will also be affected by the changes, as currently over half of Welsh councils operate co-mingled recycling collections with subsequent sorting in MRFs.

Welsh Environment Minister, John Griffiths said: "I would encourage everyone with an interest to take part in this consultation which proposes to change the way MRFs monitor and report on the quality of the recycled material they sort. These changes will produce more accurate information for local authorities and the communities they serve. 

"Improved transparency in reporting on the quality of materials from MRFs will help us to identify where progress needs to be made in order to improve the quality of Wales’s recycling.

“Improving the quality of our recycled material is important as high quality recyclate can be reprocessed here in the Wales, retaining our valuable resources and creating jobs in the waste and resource management industry. This is a top priority for us all in today's economically challenging times."

Responses for the consultation must be received by Defra before 26 April. 

The plan follows on from Scotland’s Recyclate Quality Action Plan which opened for consultation in October last year and listed 14 ‘key actions’ MRF operators need to undertake to drive up the quality of recycled material and ‘improve industry transparency’.

The quality of materials reprocessed at MRFs has been hotly debated recently and is currently the subject of a Judicial Review into the UK’s transposition of the revised Waste Framework Directive, set to be heard in High Court on 26-28 February 2013.

Read the Materials Recovery Facility Code of Practice and Quality Action Programme.