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The importance of maintaining undisrupted kerbside recycling collections

Rick Hindley, Executive Director at Alupro, explores the possible implications of severe disruptions to UK recycling collections caused by Covid-19 and what it could mean for the aluminium packaging supply chain

According to recent insight from the Association of Environment, Economy, Planning and Transport (ADEPT), local authority waste and recycling services are proving hugely resilient in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. While bulky waste collections, garden waste collections and Household Waste Recycling Centres (HWRC) have been hit hard, most other waste collection/disposal services remain active.

In fact, 97 per cent of councils are continuing to run dry recycling collections as normal (or with only minor disruptions), while close to 99 per cent of residual collections also remain unaffected (or with only minor disruptions). Waste transfer stations, materials recycling facilities (MRFs) and Energy from Waste (EfW) facilities are also – on the whole – operating as usual. This perseverance must be commended, especially taking social distancing measures and significant national staff absence rates of around 20 per cent into consideration.

Rick HindleyWhile the ADEPT data shows a positive picture, which is seemingly continuing to further improve, reading the regular reports made me consider a more negative outlook – what would happen if local authorities were forced to stop collections? What’s more, what would this mean for the aluminium packaging supply chain?

The best place to start is probably the most recent data from the Environment Agency (EA). According to figures released in March, 116,670 tonnes of aluminium packaging were collected for recycling in the UK last year – a 17 per cent increase compared to 2018 figures (99,852) and surpassing government targets by more than 8,400 tonnes.

Aluminium packaging collected through kerbside, bring and on-the-go systems increased by almost 21 per cent (from 74,595 to 89,974), while tonnage recovered from incinerator bottom ash also experienced an uplift (from 25,546 to 26,696). Since 2010, the industry has experienced a steady uplift of more than 11 per cent.

The majority of this material (more than 90 per cent) is used almost immediately within the EU to manufacture new aluminium products. This means that cancelled collections would remove a huge volume of high-quality recycled materials from the value chain.

So, what could happen to the packaging supply chain? Would metal cans and containers be quickly replaced with alternative materials? Well, probably not – especially in the short term, considering the unique properties of aluminium and its suitability for a wide variety of packaging applications.

Instead, we’d most likely see an immediate price hike, with manufacturers forced to rely on virgin resources, as well as a significant reduction in material availability, with supply chains experiencing a huge, unplanned uplift in demand. Obviously, the environmental impact of relying solely on virgin materials would increase the sector’s carbon footprint considerably too.

The implications of cancelled collections would therefore prove catastrophic. Alupro’s ambition is to achieve a recycling rate close to 100 per cent for aluminium packaging in the UK – a goal unachievable without dry recycling collections continuing as normal. The environmental benefits make compelling reading and celebrate the circularity of aluminium as a packaging material of choice.

Our longstanding ambition perfectly reflects the vision of European Aluminium’s Circular Aluminium Action Plan, which was officially released earlier this month. The report calls for stringent legislation and ambitious recycling goals to increase the volume of aluminium recycled in the EU, offsetting the need to rely on virgin materials.

The UK packaging sector is in a unique position to help achieve this target, thanks to the planned introduction of a well-designed deposit return scheme (DRS), together with a reformed packaging extended producer responsibility (EPR) regime (among other initiatives).

In summary, it’s positive news indeed to see the waste industry’s continued resilience in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. I commend the frontline workers, who are providing an essential service in very challenging circumstances. By providing collections for local residents, they are helping to supply raw materials critical for manufacturing.

The alternative? Well, it’s a very different picture indeed…