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Commingled MRF’s are burying their heads in the sand

Recently, the Confederation of Paper Industries has highlighted issues surrounding rising amounts of contamination. At Paper Round, we do our upmost to ensure recyclables remain uncontaminated throughout the recycling process. Our managing director, Bill Swan, explores the issues at hand.

Both Sources

The Confederation of Paper Industries (CPI) has rightly highlighted yet again the problems that commingled collections pose for reprocessors. (You can find out more about the CPI's concerns in this story on letsrecycle.com) Paper and cardboard cannot be collected alongside glass, plastics and cans without significantly degrading its quality. Moisture, food residues and the inevitable general waste contamination in commingled collections make the fibre dirtier and wetter than it would be if collected separately. In addition, glass shards, plastic film and general detritus will contaminate the paper and card. This is a simple fact. However, it is clear that many clients do prefer the commingled option because it is cheaper and lazier.

My own company carries out both source separated and commingled collections from our clients. We process these two streams separately and if you walk around the bale store you can easily see which bales have come from which process. Source separated fibre is always brighter, drier and cleaner.

Commingled collections are nothing more than a shoddy short-cut to achieving weight based recycling targets at the minimum cost. We mislead the general public and clients when we pretend that all this mixed together material can be magically sorted by high tech machines back into as good-as-new recyclables for happy buyers.

Clearly there is now a high degree of automation and expensive German machinery can do wonderful things. But you still see lots of hi-viz vests when you tour MRF’s as staff paid little more than the minimum wage sort by hand the things the machines can’t in dusty, noisy and dirty environments. Because the truth is that rubbish in means rubbish out. Commingled schemes always have higher levels of general waste and food then source separated schemes and machines struggle to sort rubbish.

These facts cannot simply be ‘wished away’ as a recent article by John Glover, Managing Director of Bywaters, almost attempts to do (You can view the article by Mr.Glover on letsrecycle.com here). The concerns raised by the CPI are the latest in a long litany of complaints by reprocessors on material quality. Many will recall the Campaign for Real Recycling and the legal challenges to the Government’s interpretation of EU requirements on source separated requirements. We ended up with the TEEP fudge, now a fig leaf to justify choosing the cheapest collection method.

Commingled MRF’s are burying their heads in the sand

Materials being sorted at our Purfleet MRF

Consistent

So Mr Glover is incorrect to call them “scatter-gun attacks”. On the contrary they have been remarkably consistent over the years. Paper and card should be collected separately from glass, metals and plastics. Mr Glover’s views may be coloured by the fact that Bywaters, along with Veolia, Biffa and the rest of the waste majors, has invested millions in capital intensive MRF’s designed to take dirty commingled material and make the best of it.

I am not saying that these MRF’s don’t make viable recyclates, clearly they do. I am sure that their bale stores are full of cardboard bales. But these will be of poorer quality and cost more in carbon terms to recycle than it would if collected separately. Paper suffers more in MRFs than cardboard and the soft mix produced by many commingled MRFs compares very badly indeed with what you can do with source separated paper.

So let’s drop the pretence. Commingled collections are worse than source separated. They may or may not pass the TEEP test depending on the circumstances, but when clients choose them they are putting financial considerations ahead of environmental ones.

Bill Swan

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