China, confusion and collaboration: Recycling summit charts progress

The UK has “pulled out the stops” to improve fibre contamination levels with its waste paper

The Recycling Association’s Quality First Conference, which took place on 17 April in London, saw over 100 delegates attend to discuss topics including China, local authorities, and the importance of why quality matters, a message the Association has been spreading for nearly two years

Many people, including leading recycling and waste management companies and packaging designers, came to the event to get involved in debates surrounding these topics, and to provide their input on how the sector can work together to improve recyclability and design, following the China ban.

Unexpected response

“We knew that the impacts of China’s revised contamination levels and material bans under National Sword would be a hot topic,” said Simon Ellin, The Recycling Association’s chief executive. “What we couldn’t predict at that time was what they would be.

“By and large, delegates and speakers confirmed our thoughts that the UK has pulled out the stops to meet the 0.5 per cent fibre contamination levels.

“If you’d asked me back in January if this would be possible I would have said no. I’m happy to be proved wrong. But it’s still early days,” he said.

However, not all speakers were of the same opinion. In her keynote speech, MP Mary Creagh, who sits on the influential Environmental Audit Committee, told delegates that she was aware of recovered material being sent to landfill.

“Of course, not all paper will meet the 0.5 per cent level; some has found other markets with less stringent contamination levels. But, if some is being sent to landfill, we need evidence of this to be made public now so that we can take action,” said Simon Ellin.

Mary Creagh also told the audience that improvements in packaging design were essential, as were better industry communications. In a week when Facebook has come under extreme criticism, she told recycling delegates that they should be using the beleaguered platform to get clearer and more targeted messages out to householders.

Novel consultation

Richard Parker, Head of Sustainable Packaging at Iceland Foods, reassured the audience that the retailer’s decision to move away from own-brand plastic packaging was more than a headline-grabbing PR stunt. Plastic, he said, wasn’t doing a bad job, but something had to be done to stop it polluting the oceans.

Reassuringly, he told the audience that the recycling of new paper packaging materials could not just be technically feasible but had to be acceptable to paper recyclers.

“It was refreshing to hear a retailer so open to collaboration” said Simon Ellin. “Normally our members only get to hear about new packaging materials when they are launched. With so many product lines to re-package, it’s impressive that Iceland is consulting with the recyclers and reprocessors to ensure that its new solutions work on every level. Furthermore, that they will listen and change approach if needed.

“But Iceland alone won’t turn the tide on unrecyclable packaging. We need retailers to band together, make the right decisions and create a scalable new solution,” said Simon Ellin.

Perhaps the session that proved the biggest surprise at this year’s Quality First conference was the one dedicated to local authorities.

Speaker Lee Marshall, chief executive of LARAC, told delegates that, despite what we all think, the public didn’t really care about recycling and that they were in no way confused about what packaging could or could not be recycled.

He continued to tell delegates that local authorities were only concerned about material up to the point where it was collected and that they would only change their approach when their material was refused.

“We all know local authorities are under incredible cost pressures, but we didn’t expect that they could be so far adrift in terms of their recycling ambitions,” said Simon Ellin. “It has certainly left delegates worried.

“If nothing else, it will make us redouble our efforts to work with and collaborate with local authorities. They’re a critical link within the recycling supply chain; we cannot afford to be so far apart.”

Keeping a foot on the gas

On a more positive note, there was a running theme of collaboration, cohesion and culture change that pervaded all presentations and panel discussions.

“When we started the Quality First journey back in 2016, one of our ambitions was to bring the full supply chain together, to share responsibility for future solutions. We also wanted to raise awareness about the challenges faced by the recycling sector.

“This year’s conference has highlighted how far we’ve come. We’ve seen other organisations calling for the same joined up approach and we’re delighted with the progress to date. But we have to keep our foot on the gas.

“The industry has the ear of Government, and we need to ensure that they also work with us. I have no doubt, the upcoming 12 months will be another interesting period,” concluded Simon Ellin.