Quality control

Written by: Victoria Hutchin & Dr Adam Read | Published:

Waste management consultants Victoria Hutchin and Dr Adam Read of Ricardo Energy & Environment discuss trends in recycling quality and the importance of communication in tackling contamination issues

Over the past 12 months, the focus on purity has continued to increase across the UK, with a real shift away from recyclate volume to material quality. This has been reflected by an increase in reported levels of rejects on WasteDataFlow (up 26%) on the previous year.

This may be as much to do with improvements in material quality (through increased scrutiny of local authority collected materials by MRF operators and reprocessors) as it is a result of a decrease in the number of authorities reporting implausibly low rejects in the past.

For example, in 2011/12, 75% of local authorities using MRFs to process material reported contamination rates of 9.2% or less on WasteDataFlow; however, looking at the latest quarter of data from WRAP’s MRF portal, average input contamination levels are now up at 12.9% (albeit that this will include some element of trade waste).

There is little doubt that the waste data available is showing that contamination levels have increased but, when considered as part of the 11 million tonnes of material collected from households for recycling in 2015/16, this represents a rejection rate of just 3%.

As industries go, a 97% success rate is not a bad key performance indicator, and sometimes it is easy to overlook this fact – the recycling system is pretty effective, but there is room for improvement.

Some commentators and sector analysts have speculated that the additional rejects are caused by MRFs reducing output contamination within their materials to meet tightening end-user demands, but there is no real evidence to support this, with the proportion of contamination in outputs remaining fairly constant since the requirements were introduced.

For example, paper saw a 0.7% improvement in output contamination in the third quarter of 2016 compared with the fourth quarter of 2014, but all other materials have had a slight increase in the proportion of contaminants, as shown in the graph below.

Material price trends

The trends in recyclate prices for 2016 paint a better picture than for 2015, with many of the key materials showing an increase in real value over the past 12 months.

Such increases have been recorded across all core material groups (fibre, glass, metals and plastics); and, most notably, steel cans increased in value by 289% between January and December 2016, a welcome recovery following the global fall in their price in 2015. However, this has not universally been the case for all materials, with MRF glass showing a moderate decrease of 13%, perhaps highlighting again the increased focus on material quality by the MRF end markets
and reprocessors.

The price improvements over the past year have had a positive impact on the wider waste industry, with Biffa’s resource and recovery department, for example, showing a revenue increase of 5.1%, driven in part by the increase in commodity prices.

This shift from recyclate quantity to quality has in part been brought about by the fall in material prices leading up to 2016 and the increasing level of scrutiny of materials for export, leading to the realisation by material suppliers to the reprocessor market that the only lever to secure better prices is material quality. The core purpose of implementing the new MRF testing requirements under schedule 9A of the Environmental Permitting Regulations was to address the perceived materials market failure. Perhaps the upturn in prices in 2016 relative to recent years is in part a reflection of this shift, which is a good news story for many in the sector.

It is widely accepted that high-quality materials, for example high purity and low contamination, will achieve a greater market value than those of a low quality, particularly during periods when market values for materials are low.

Tightening of export protocols has also meant that it is no longer possible to export poorer-quality materials, and operators cannot afford the reputational risk of sending highly contaminated materials abroad for reprocessing only to have them rejected at the receiving port.

Material quality and communication

One of the key challenges to achieving high quality (low contamination) materials from
a kerbside recycling system is that it relies primarily on the behaviour of members of
the public (and to a lesser degree, the collection crews).

Recycling services require residential compliance with a particular system for segregating and presenting their waste, which, as is well known, can differ considerably from one authority to the next. In order for councils to effectively meet this challenge of service design, delivery and minimising contamination, they require the full buy-in from individuals at every level within their organisation, from the ultimate decision-makers and budget-holders through to the collection staff working on the streets.

As such, everyone, from crews and call centre staff to elected members and council executive officers, must be on-board and on-message to tackle contamination. Crews especially need to know that they have support in place, and that action will be taken by the council when they report contaminated bins.

Externally, the public need to know there is an issue, and be supported on ‘how to recycle correctly’ and what happens if they don’t.

Sharing the cost implications of contamination with the public is a key step in helping them understand why doing things right is so important, so we herald those councils that have been more transparent in their messaging in recent years when trying to address specific contamination issues in their authority.

There are a number of underlying reasons for contamination and recent research into public attitudes suggests people:

  1. Want more transparency on what happens to their recycling/waste
  2. Are frustrated that there are not enough educational materials available on recycling
  3. Are frustrated and confused over knowing what they can actually recycle
  4. Lack confidence about putting different waste in the right bins
  5. Are confused about which days to put the bins out.

Significantly, points two through five have been traditional (and core) roles of local authorities, but ongoing austerity measures have markedly reduced budgets, with communications (the impacts of which can be difficult to quantify) being one of the first areas to be cut.

Our 2015 report Waste on the frontline: challenges and innovations found that almost half of respondents had had a reduction in their communications budget. This has ultimately eroded public knowledge and confidence in recycling services.

Councils across Britain are starting to get to grips with the problem, though.

Cannock Chase Council launched its campaign in August 2016 following a reported increase in the number of contaminated loads being received by the council’s contractor, Biffa. Oxford City Council and Rochdale Council have both been working actively to address contamination issues, and their efforts in challenging operational environments and tackling recycling in flats and people regarded by others as ‘hard to reach’ have been rewarded.

In Oxford, improved procedures and joint working between officers, collection crews, housing management agencies, etc have had a positive impact, and Rochdale’s efforts led to an award for best communications campaign at last year’s LARAC Conference.

Addressing contamination in a piecemeal fashion, although a common approach for many on tight budgets, is really not the answer as councils will find they are just addressing the symptom and not the root cause.

Contamination can be reduced and managed by a combination of:

  • Effective service design and adapting services to suit different locations and populations
  • Good management systems and efficient reporting
  • Clear and enforced policies aligned with appropriate operational procedures designed to manage contamination
  • Good, regular communications with the public (including feedback on progress)
  • Engaging internal audiences to support effective service delivery and associated procedures.

All the research shows people want and need more information, but in times of continuing financial pressures, local authority officers must fight very hard for their communications budgets.

What is important to remember is that recycling systems rely largely on public goodwill, and negative press surrounding residents’ efforts only undermines progress achieved to date. Achieving low contamination and high purity is more important than ever, and the industry needs to work as a whole, and with the public who supply the materials, in order to face the growing material quality challenge.

With pioneering campaigns and increasing best practice exemplars to draw on, we expect the material quality challenge to be met head on by authorities across the UK. Things are improving and by working together, and with the ongoing journey towards greater consistency and harmonisation in services and by default messages and support provided, we expect the materials quality debate and concerns surrounding contamination to be a major theme for 2017, but not beyond.

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