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More work needed to reduce contamination in the recycling stream, shows SEPA data

Contamination of waste being sent to Scotland’s material recovery facilities (MRFs) is hindering Scotland’s ability to maximise the quantity and quality of material available from recycling, according to a report published on 27 July by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA).

The report is launched less than a week before Earth Overshoot Day (2 August), the day by which humanity’s resource consumption for the year exceeds Earth’s capacity to regenerate those resources that year. It is a timely reminder that Scotland cannot continue to use more resources than the planet can provide (currently 2.7 planet’s worth) and highlights the importance of SEPA’s commitment to driving a One Plant Prosperity approach.

This is SEPA’s first report looking at the quality of waste coming into and leaving material recovery facilities and examines data from the 13 MRFs that met the reporting criteria, covering October 2015 to May 2017.

Although the dataset is relatively small and is sensitive to fluctuations from individual operators, it showed that of the 327,760 tonnes of Scotland’s recyclable waste that was received, the contamination rate ranged from 0.91% to 43.04% – a national average figure of 17%.

This figure does not include waste that was so badly contaminated it does not make it to the recycling facility and instead is sent to energy from waste facilities or landfill.

Addressing the quality and quantity of the waste sent for recovery is critical to ensuring that maximum value is derived from the resources circulating in the economy – as well as building economic benefits to Scotland. The data has highlighted key areas that need to be tackled, including reducing contamination, managing downstream outcomes more effectively, building confidence in what is happening to materials after they leave MRFs and ensuring appropriate treatment is taking place. Also of huge importance is encouraging development of infrastructure to retain materials domestically.

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.”

Iain Gulland, Chief Executive, Zero Waste Scotland, said:

“Scotland is working towards a 70% recycling target by 2025, and we know through our engagement with householders and businesses that everyone is working hard to help achieve that.

“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.”

Also launched today is an online tool designed to provide transparency on material quality in the Scottish recyclate supply chain, giving buyers of MRFs products more information about the quality of the product they are interested in purchasing. The tool, available at www.environment.scotland.gov.uk/get-interactive/discover-data/, shows the sampling information reported by each MRF, including the tonnage, grade and composition of recyclate at the pre- and post-processing stages.

For the last 18 months, SEPA officers have worked very closely with MRFs, carrying out detailed audits and holding discussions with operator sampling staff. From SEPA’s own sampling at these sites, it became apparent that, over and above the more obvious contaminants, such as 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 takes resource management seriously and is committed to working with others across the whole supply chain to improve the quality and quantity of waste sent for recycling. A number of projects are already underway, and SEPA will investigate all opportunities for partnership working to help achieve this outcome.

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