How can Scotland crack its consistency issue?

Written by: Maxine Perella | Published:
The Scottish Resources Conference drew in crowds from across the supply chain

Contamination in the recycling stream, or indeed the residual waste stream, is a perennial problem for those working at the sharp end of collection and processing.

It’s a tough nut to crack, regardless of policy interventions and public information campaigns. There are still too many variables when it comes to collection systems, packaging materials, reprocessing capabilities, and of course, consumer behaviour.

Speaking at the recent Scottish Resources conference held in Perth, Scotland, this month, Mairi Gougeon, minister for rural affairs and natural environment, told delegates that the Scottish government would shortly undertake a formal evaluation of the Household Recycling Charter that aims to bring more consistency to recycling services.

A welcome move, given that greater consistency of service provision should go some way to helping addressing the contamination bugbear. But it appears the Charter has highlighted a few other issues.

While 30 of 32 Scottish local authorities have now signed up to the voluntary Charter, service provision from just eight of those councils is considered to be closely aligned with the Charter’s associated Code of Practice (CoP).

The minister did not go into the precise reasons behind the evaluation and planned review of the CoP, but her announcement did prompt some speculation among delegates that the Charter might be made mandatory in order to drive compliance with the requirements outlined in the CoP.

Latest figures from the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) also show a slight fall in Scotland’s household recycling rate – something the minister indicated that the government was keen to address.

“Our commitment to support everyone to recycle more is reflected by the introduction of the Household Recycling Charter,” she said. “The statistics show us we need to do more. The household recycling rate fell slightly last year – that shows us we can’t afford to be complacent.”

The difficulty with targets

Scotland is not only keen to meet ambitious targets on recycling – it’s currently aiming for a 70% recycling rate by 2025 – it also wants to keep the economic value of those materials in the country to drive greater prosperity, job creation, not to mention circularity.

But upping recycling rates while reducing contamination rates has historically proven to be a tricky balance – and not just for Scotland.

Recent research from Recycle Now found that while 60% of UK households are recycling more than they were a year ago, many householders are still putting incorrect items in recycling bins. These include nappies, toys and toothpaste tubes.

During a session on tackling contamination and improving recyclate quality, SEPA’s waste and landfill tax manager Gary Walker told delegates that he had “an acute interest” in the topic due to his role in helping to prevent contaminated waste containers destined for export leaving Scotland. “Contamination rates are on the increase,” he said.

“The fact we’re talking about this today suggests to me we’ve not yet nailed it.”

Janet McVea, who heads up the Scottish government’s zero waste unit, said that in terms of contamination rates, despite a decline in local authority input quality, the longer-term data trend suggested one of improvement.

Reducing quality

She also pointed out that recyclate quality has become more critical in the wake of global recycling markets contracting.

“How do we crack the consistency issue?” she asked delegates. Referring to the Household Recycling Charter, she questioned to what extent it should be made mandatory and whether the issue was more about consistency of materials or, the consistency of how those materials are collected.

She said the establishment of a strategic steering group would be tasked with evaluating the Charter, and that it would connect with local authorities during the process of this work.

Significantly, McVea said the contamination issue presented a challenge in terms of making recycling attractive to future investors. Going forward, she said taking a supply chain approach would be important in delivering greater consistency and high quality inputs.

Some of the upstream measures she touched on included smarter design choices integrated with end-of-life management systems and markets, a focus on using less composite or hard-to-recycle materials, and clearer product labelling.

Those working at the coalface remain closest to the issue however. Pam Walker, waste and recycling manager at Aberdeen City Council, comes with 27 years’ experience of working in waste at local authority level. She provided some sobering reflection on contamination.

“From a local authority perspective, I don’t think we’ll ever crack it,” she told delegates. She said while improvements could be made to deliver cleaner material streams, there may be a need to design into future recycling systems “some allowance” for contamination.

While Aberdeen City Council has bucked the national trend – its recycling rate increased from 43.9% in 2017 to 47.3% in 2018 since the introduction of comingled collections to all households – its input material for the third quarter of 2019 had an average contamination rate of 10.4%.

Its recovery rate of target materials currently stands at 79.8%. “For a city, that’s probably not that bad,” Walker said.

Angus Hamilton, managing director of Levenseat, spoke of the need for simpler recycling systems that are easy to understand, householder education, and a renewed push to maximise participation levels.

But he also highlighted each local authority area comes with its own unique set of circumstances and considerations. “There’s clearly different aspects to each local authority area which will drive decision-making,” he said.

Hamilton also pointed out that some recyclates, like paper, were more susceptible to contamination than other materials like steel, and that this needed to be taken into account when looking at collection systems across the board.

“We shouldn’t just focus on households, there are also challenges with commercial collections,” he said. Educating businesses, as well as householders, could make a significant difference, he added.

The sector's role

One speaker keen to provide a sanity check was Adam Read, external affairs director at SUEZ Recycling & Recovery UK. He took the opportunity to remind delegates that the sector’s original function, which centred around public health, has evolved sharply over the years.

“We weren’t designed to deliver quality commodities to global end markets – we’re still learning,” he emphasised. “So let’s not assume we’re going to get it right straight away.”

Read also stressed the need to keep it simple. “Why can’t we recycle by number?” he questioned. In such a scenario, different numbers on packaging materials could potentially be assigned to a bin number, or colour, making it easier for the householder to work out which material type needs to be placed in which bin.

Certainly, it would seem that contamination is here to stay for the foreseeable future. Following on from its research, Recycle Now says it plans to work with local authorities to target key contaminants and missed capture of potential recyclate.

Part of this work will involve helping householders understand more about what can and cannot be recycled in their homes.

But, as Read pointed out at the conference, the waste landscape is changing. While any positive interventions are welcome, there are some future unknowns regarding quality levels – particularly in local authority input streams.

The introduction of a deposit return scheme (DRS) in Scotland is likely to have an impact here, especially if it cannibalises material from council collections. And if it does do that, will the quality that remains those kerbside bins be better … or worse?

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