The elephant in the room

Simon Weston, Managing Director of Smurfit Kappa Recycling UK, notes that the waste industry does not sufficiently recognise that recycling is more than just collecting materials

Simon WestonThe Campaign for Real Recycling (CRR) has been roundly criticised by members of the waste management fraternity for seeking a judicial review of the UK governments’ transposition of the European revised Waste Framework Directive (rWFD). CRR and the representative members who brought the action have been branded ‘divisive’ and ‘introspective’. In commenting on the activities of CRR, a spokesman from Biffa claimed, “As an industry, we can be proud of our work and should be promoting it, but it’s hard to do that when blinkered points-of-view get in the way.” The question is of course, which industry is he talking about? Is he referring to waste managers or the whole supply chain?


The word ‘recycling’ was hijacked long ago by waste managers and is used to give an environmentally-friendly seal to their operations. In reality they are engaged in recovering materials, which may later be sent for recycling at a reprocessor. Only when something good and useful has been made from recovered material can it be said to have been recycled. It is therefore incumbent upon those that recover materials to consider the needs of the reprocessors as paramount and not the needs of producers, because until waste is reprocessed into something of use it remains an environmental pollutant. In short, focus must be on the recyclability of secondary materials not on the ease of collecting them. Without good-quality raw materials, no reprocessor can thrive and nor will the best interests of the economy or the environment be served, no matter what claims may be made about increased recovery rates.


The coming together of European environmental legislation and cash-strapped local authorities in the 1990s was a happy coincidence for the waste managers, who were well placed to act as ‘white knights’ to a damsel in distress. Cash-rich companies moved to secure lucrative long-term contracts guaranteeing local authorities (LAs) that recovery targets would be met. This was not done for philanthropic reasons; waste managers do not exist for the good of the public, the government, local authorities or the environment. They are in it for the money and what can be made from providing a necessary service to society, and their aim was to secure long-term revenue streams. By investing in sizeable capital projects in the form of sorting facilities and securing them against long-term contracts with LAs they have served their own interests masterfully. Commingled collections are integral to this business model because they alone require capital investment in sorting facilities with a commensurate payback period secured against long-term contracts.


In all of this, quality, supply chain efficiency, the morality of moving non-recyclable material around the world and other environmental issues have taken a backseat. Let us be clear, the advent of commingling allowed the waste management industry to gain a preeminent and controlling position in the secondary resources market. To do this, convenient though often-misleading arguments have been developed that justify the end. Claim and counterclaim have been made as to which recovery system delivers best, which is easiest for the public to use and which delivers an acceptable quality for reprocessors. For every piece of evidence produced to justify one collection methodology, counter evidence is produced to support another.


One ineffable truth remains but is ignored, and reprocessors (the real recyclers) know it. Material sorted at the kerbside is much cleaner and of better quality than that which is collected commingled. Argue what you like; this is true! Some sorting facilities can produce an acceptable quality for recycling, but the majority do not. At a time when no reliable measure of MRF output quality has been devised, it is logical to seek one acceptable standard. This can be achieved by source separation. The argument that because there is an outlet for a material proves it is of adequate quality does not wash. Forcing reprocessors to buy poor-quality material because that is all that there is undermines the operational integrity and efficiencies of recyclers and just shifts the financial and carbon burden of managing poor quality up the supply chain.


Here is the elephant in the room. The promotion of commingled recovery systems is in the absolute best interests of the waste management industry because it is a great way for them to lock into long-term, high-value revenue streams. It is not best for the reprocessing industry. Arguably, it is not in the best interests of the majority of local authorities, many of which are now committed to high-priced, long-term supply contracts and have lost control of valuable revenue streams. It is not in the best interests of the environment because shipping contaminated materials around the globe makes neither environmental nor moral sense.


In the circumstances, it is not surprising therefore that the waste industry’s defence of the government’s interpretation of the rWFD is so robust, or that its attitude towards those that question the basis of its business model or the quality of its output is antipathetic. It is the waste management industry that has most to gain from the promotion of commingling. Thus when it is suggested that the industry should be ‘proud of our work’, and CRR’s activities ‘get in the way’, both statements are probably correct. However, the motives of the parties are not as easy to discern!