Last reviewed 24 September 2018

Is “red tape” sending recyclable material to landfill ? And is this an inevitable consequence of the waste legislation? Caroline Hand takes a brief look into the workings of Materials Recycling Facilities (MRFs) and the local communities who feed them.

Recycling collections do not often make the news, but in January 2016, the BBC reported on a worrying trend. Oxfordshire County Council was having to send an increasing proportion of its separately collected recyclables to energy recovery due to contamination with unacceptable items. This is surprising seeing that Oxfordshire is the best performing council in England when it comes to household recycling. The 2015/16 statistics indicate a rate of 66% in South Oxfordshire, compared with the national average for that year of 43%.

When interviewed by the BBC, the local authority was unwilling to place the blame on the residents. Yes, the contamination arises from people putting the wrong items in the recycling bin, but the blame for the higher rejection rate was placed on waste legislation — the MRF requirements found in schedule 9, Part 2 of the Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2016.

Because of these regulatory requirements, waste arriving at the MRF is subject to regular sampling, the results of which must be reported to the Environment Agency. This has prompted the MRF operators to be more assiduous in their monitoring of the incoming waste and their rejection of non-recyclable materials. In each attempt to remove an unwelcome contaminant such as a nappy, the MRF operatives also scoop up several kilogrammes of genuine recyclables which end up in the Energy from Waste (EfW) facility.

While EfW recovers value from waste and is a form of renewable energy, it costs up to £110 per tonne (summer 2018 figures) whereas the sorted recyclables can be sold to reprocessors to generate an income.

MRF regulatory requirements

The aim of the legislation is to improve the quality of recyclate and ensure that the recyclate from commingled collections is of equivalent quality to that from segregated collections. MRFs are subject to the regulations if they receive more than 1000 tonnes per year of “mixed waste”: this term refers to waste that contains at least 50% by weight of two or more of certain materials, which are:

  • glass

  • metal

  • plastic

  • paper and card.

The regulations do not apply to smaller MRFs, transfer stations or local authority civic amenity sites.

Details of both inputs and outputs must be reported to the Agency. After sampling the inputs, the MRF must report the average composition of target material (glass, metal, plastic and paper), non-target material (ie other recyclable materials) and non-recyclable material. The regulations do not specify the quality of the outputs, but leave this to the market to decide.

The sampling results

MRFs had to begin their sampling by October 2014, and the results are now available on the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) website. The most recent results relate to the quarter January-March 2018. These show that of the 103 registered MRFs, 101 submitted results, and the average percentage of target material in inputs was 84.9% for England and 87.5% for Wales. This means that in England, approximately 15% of the “recycling” collected from householders was waste that could not be recycled.

Causes of contamination

A close look at the legislation reveals that the MRF Regulations are not the real cause of rising contamination rates, as they do not specify any particular quality standards for the inputs and outputs — they merely require the operators to sample and report. What is happening is that as a result of carrying out this methodical sampling, the operators have a much more accurate picture of contamination levels and are taking action to remove contaminants.

Householders place the “wrong” items in their recycling bins for a variety of reasons, such as:

  • a misunderstanding of what can and cannot be recycled

  • a failure to understand the system, eg if residents cannot read English

  • deliberate disregard for recycling, perhaps borne out of a failure to grasp the benefits it brings to the local community

  • to save money (eg, in the City of London residents pay for a residual waste sack but the recycling sacks are free)

  • to save time (eg, putting large electrical items in a community recycling bin rather than taking them to the civic amenity site).

All kinds of unwanted items find their way into the recycling bins. In Oxfordshire, the main contaminants were nappies and food waste. Mixed plastics can also be a problem: food tubs, pots and trays are often marked with a recycling symbol, but not all MRFs can recycle them.

The chief culprits

Detective work by the local authorities has identified the typical suspects for recycling contamination. In Manchester, the highest levels of contamination were found in:

  • densely populated areas with small terraced houses

  • areas of privately rented accommodation

  • areas with a transient population

  • urban areas with a mixture of commercial and residential buildings.

The highest levels of contamination came from apartments.

A survey by WRAP looking at age profiles of recyclers shows that students are typically the most careless recyclers, with young families coming in second from bottom.

Tackling the problem

Local authorities have taken two different approaches to tackling the problem of contamination, which are:

  • technological solutions

  • better communication with residents.

The technical fix

Investment in new equipment can drastically improve the performance of the MRF and raise the quality of its output. Some of the star performers have been cited on WRAP’s website, including the following examples.

Milton Keynes. About 40% of their residual stream consisted of non-target but potentially recyclable polymers such as carrier bags, packaging film, food trays and yoghurt pots. By investing in a manual picking cabin for these, they were able to segregate them for reprocessing and succeeded in finding a buyer for the mixed plastics. More recently they have invested in an optical sorting system.

Exeter. The MRF was in danger of defaulting on its contract with its customer, a major paper reprocessor, due to the high levels of contamination of the paper inputs. Their solution was to purchase a TiTech optical sorter. This sophisticated equipment uses optical technology to sort paper from plastic and cans at a greater rate than is achievable manually.

Aldridge. This MRF recently became one of only two in the country that is accredited to export directly to China without the intervention of third parties. They achieved this high standard through investment in starscreens: steel shafts to which stars — spinning at up to 2500 revolutions per minute — are fitted. The screen is inclined at an angle to the conveyor belt. Large two-dimensional objects such as cardboard, newspapers and magazines are gripped and carried up the slope, while three-dimensional objects like plastic bottles, metal cans and items made of glass roll out on to a separate belt.

Technology can also play a part closer to home: in Slough, the local authority has installed new communal recycling bins which can only be opened using a fob issued to residents of the flats. This prevents passers-by from using the bins to dump other waste items.

The talking cure

WRAP’s advice to any councils with contamination problems is to improve their communication with residents. In an interesting report entitled The Ur-bin Issue, Keep Britain Tidy describes an exercise that it carried out with a citizen’s jury — a representative group of ordinary citizens who over a period of time were taught about recycling and encouraged to describe their evolving viewpoints. As they discovered more about what happens to their recyclables, and the benefits that recycling can bring, they became more committed recyclers.

A key conclusion was that people will be more motivated to recycle if they can see the benefits at local level — for example, if income from recycling is spent on improving local parks and other community facilities. To catch those students before they start contaminating the bins, many local authorities have produced materials especially for schools and will hold special lessons or assemblies on the theme of recycling.

Sometimes the waste collection authority just needs to clarify which items can be recycled, and where they need to go. Simple pictorial stickers, eg a crossed-out nappy, are likely to be more effective than long, wordy leaflets. People also respond better to specific descriptions, eg a “shampoo bottle” rather than “plastic bottle” or “PET”. The fact is that most people do care about their environment and will respond positively to a clear message.