SEPA highlights need for quality improvement after first MRF sampling report

The quality and quantity of Scotland’s recycling is being held back by contamination of the waste being sent to the country’s material recovery facilities (MRFs), according to the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA).

Scottish MRFs receiving more than 1,000 tonnes of mixed dry recyclable waste (or separately collected dry recyclable waste) in any reporting year have been obliged to sample incoming and outgoing material since October 2015, when the ‘Code of Practice on Sampling and Reporting at Materials Recovery Facilities’ came into effect.

The agency has carried out its first study of the quality of waste going into and leaving MRFs, examining data from the 13 facilities that met reporting criteria between October 2015 and May 2017.

The study found that the MRFs returned an average contamination rate of 16.9 per cent, though it warns that due to the small sample the figure is sensitive to fluctuations from individual operators. Indeed, among the MRFs, which received 327,760 tonnes of recyclable waste, the contamination rate ranged from 0.91 per cent to 43.04 per cent.

This does not include waste that was so badly contaminated that it never made it to the recycling facility and was instead sent to energy-from-waste facilities or landfill.

Areas to address

SEPA says that addressing the quality of the waste sent for recovery is critical to ensuring that maximum value is derived from the resources circulating in the economy and that they are providing the full potential economic benefits to Scotland.

Particular key areas that need to be addressed are highlighted in the data, including reducing contamination, managing downstream outcomes more effectively, building confidence in what is happening to materials once they leave MRFs and ensuring the appropriate treatment in taking place.

For the last year and a half, SEPA says its officers have been working closely with MRFs to carry out detailed audits and hold discussions with operator sampling staff.

From SEPA’s own sampling at these sites, it became apparent that as well as the more obvious contaminants like soiled nappies, electrical items and food waste, other contamination appeared to be a result of difficulty identifying the different types of material used for packaging due to, for example, labels being too difficult to read, different ways of displaying recycling information and, in some cases, a complete absence of information.

SEPA’s Chief Executive, Terry A’Hearn, said: “While Scotland is recycling more and landfilling less than at any point in our recent history we must dramatically cut waste production across the economy, recover more and dispose of only the very minimum.

“For Scotland to achieve a circular economy, where valuable resources don’t end up disposed of but are available for re-use and recycling, we need some big changes – and the responsibility for these changes doesn’t just lie with the waste industry. We know that those sites that have good communication with their customers are able to ensure a lower contamination rate, so it shows that supplier engagement really does make a difference.

“Success needs changes at every step of the journey, and that means thinking about improvements at each stage in the process; starting at the point of production, and finishing not when an item is discarded and becomes a potential resource, but to the very end of its journey.”

The report, published today (27 July), comes less than a week before Earth Overshoot Day, the annual day in the calendar where humanity uses more resources than can be regenerated naturally. SEPA says that this timing highlights the importance of driving down resource consumption and its commitment to taking on a One Planet Prosperity approach.

Online ‘Recyclate Quality’ tool launched

As well as the report, SEPA has also today launched an online tool to provide transparency on material quality in the Scottish recyclate supply chain, giving buyers of materials from MRFs more information about the quality of the product they are interested in purchasing.

The ‘Recyclate Quality’ tool shows sampling information reported by each MRF, including tonnage, grade and composition of recyclate at the input and output stage.

“Scotland is working towards a 70 per cent recycling target by 2025, and we know through our engagement with householders and businesses that everyone is working hard to help achieve that,” added Iain Gulland, Chief Executive of Zero Waste Scotland.

“The SEPA data shows, however, that contamination continues to be a challenge, yet indications are that progress is being made. The Household Recycling Charter, agreed by the Scottish Government and COSLA, will make it clearer for residents what can and can’t be recycled and improve the consistency of recycling services across Scotland.

“With 25 councils already signed up to the Charter, it’s great to see partners committed to maximising high-quality recycling. This report highlights the next steps for Scotland to get the most out of our materials and help us achieve our circular economy ambitions.”

The ‘Materials Recovery Code’ report can be downloaded and read on the SEPA website.

Related Articles