Wouldn't it be so much more convenient if a year in business were as simple as a TV programme or a film script in which all of the threads and issues raised at the start were fully resolved by the time the end was reached? Unfortunately, many of the complex problems that were bedeviling our sector at the dawn of 2018 were still with us as the year drew to a close – with a few more challenges added on top for good measure.
Among many clouds darkening our skies, China is no longer the massive go-to market for many exporters following the government's adoption of a far more restrictive import control system. Our panel debate during the BIR Convention in London last October underlined how many details of China's approach remain unclear; at the same time, however, we would be unwise to dismiss the advice of Keith Trower of Viridor Resource Management, who urged us all to "start planning" for the prospect of a Chinese ban on imports of all solid waste by 2020.
Those plans will naturally involve seeking out other potential markets for the material which, in the not-too-distant past, we would have shipped to China with barely a second thought. However, our panel in London also warned that other Asian countries could not be expected to fill the void left by China – either individually or collectively. What's more, the scope to expand exports to Asia will be limited by countries adopting fibre import policies similar to those deployed in China. Another key market, Indonesia, has already imposed 100% inspections and other countries have been introducing new controls of their own.
Of course, exporters' plans could also involve ensuring the trading lane with China remains open by embracing new methods of operation that ensure conformity with the Chinese authorities' exacting requirements. Taking the UK as an example, a quality control scheme jointly developed by The Recycling Association and CCIC London implements an additional inspection regime at depot level, as well as blockchain technology that will be used to provide transparency to all those who need to see the inspection data and export paperwork.
Such innovation underlines once again the resilient and proactive nature of the recycling industry, and also its flexibility in the face of constantly changing circumstances.
As a side note, it will be interesting to see how 2018 recycling rates around the world will have been affected by developments involving China. For Europe, the European Paper Recycling Council revealed a recycling figure of 72.3% in 2017 versus 72% in 2016. "The Chinese waste import restrictions have had an impact on markets, and Chinese imports of European paper for recycling have started to decline," it stated. But it also added: "This decline is gradually being balanced by a stronger use of paper for recycling in Europe, and other countries, due to investments in additional paper recycling capacities."
At our divisional meeting in Barcelona last May, guest speakers Guillermo Vallés Albar of SAICA and Emiliano Guainella of EMEA Containerboard at International Paper in Spain provided a timely reminder that quality is not merely an issue for customers in Asia, with the latter identifying fibre purchases as the largest cost for mills and lamenting the proportions of unwanted material despite improvements having been made.
Another cloud on the recovered paper horizon relates to Brexit and the still-distinct possibility at the time of writing of no deal being agreed prior to the target date of March 29 this year. At our London meeting, Deborah Sacks of the UK's Department for International Trade spoke of the government's huge will to ensure the continued flow of goods after March 29 but acknowledged the possibility of more delays and increased costs for those looking to move material after that date. Experts from our own industry used the occasion to voice their own concerns over possible truck delays and documentary headaches in the immediate post-Brexit era.
Once again, we have to hope that recycling professionals will show their customary flexibility in making trade as easy as possible despite the odds.
By Jean-Luc Petithuguenin
Paprec Recyclage (FRA)
President Paper Division
“ Such innovation underlines once again the resilient and proactive nature of the recycling industry, and also its flexibility in the face of constantly changing circumstances.”
PRESIDENT PAPER DIVISION
Paprec Recyclage (FRA)
Made from vegetable fibres called cellulose, paper as we know it today was first created in China more than 2000 years ago. Since the advent of the printing press in the 15th century, its use has spread across all continents to the extent that, currently, it is hard to imagine the world without this versatile material. Around 420 million tonnes of paper and cardboard are produced worldwide every year, with well over half of the raw material coming from recovered sources.
Some 50-60% of recovered paper comes from industry and business. This includes paper trimmings, cuttings and shavings from manufacturers and converters, as well as goods discarded before they reach the consumer, such as unsold newspapers and magazines. The remaining recovered fibre comes from households.
THE NEED FOR FREE TRADE
Recovered fibre collections in, notably, North America and Europe easily exceed local consumption needs and so overseas trade has become a major component of this market. But despite the environmental, social and economic advantages of the worldwide trade in recovered paper, flows have been disrupted over recent years. China established itself as the leading importer of recovered fibre, buying around 30 million tonnes per annum from overseas suppliers at one stage. However, the Chinese government has recently imposed more stringent import rules, with the result that overseas purchases are believed to have declined below 10 million tonnes in 2019 and are expected to drop still further.
Similarly restrictive import measures have also been introduced by other countries in Asia which had been leading buyers of surplus material from Europe, thus impacting the global market and creating widespread concern over the diminishing outlets for the world’s excess volumes because of a move away from the free trade principles supported by BIR.
TEN QUESTIONS ABOUT PAPER RECOVERY AND RECYCLING
Recovered paper is a valuable raw material that can be reused to create new paper and board products. Paper recovery is preferable to landfill or incineration for energy recovery.
Almost any household paper can be recycled, including used newspapers, cardboard, packaging, stationery, “direct mail”, magazines, catalogues, greetings cards and wrapping paper. It is important that these papers are kept separate from other household waste, as contaminated papers are not acceptable for recycling.
Some paper products are not collectable and/or recyclable. The share of such paper products - which comprise, for example, cigarette papers, wallpaper, tissue papers and archives - is estimated at 15-20% of total paper consumption. Furthermore, it might not be economically or environmentally sound to collect and recycle all fibres that are theoretically available because of heavy transportation costs.
Depending somewhat on the paper grade, it can be recycled 3 to 8 times.
Basically all paper grades can be produced based entirely on recovered paper. However, paper cannot be recycled endlessly and so the system requires a constant injection of virgin fibres.
Yes it is, and this is done on a broad basis. Obviously, most paper products can be produced using only recovered or virgin fibres, but it is also possible to use both at the same time.
The method of collecting recovered paper depends on its source. From large industrial and commercial sources, the volumes are so high that they have dedicated collection equipment. For households, recyclable materials such as paper and board packaging, plastics packaging, etc. are collected together; in other cases, single-stream collections are undertaken.
The most important contribution is to ensure used paper is made available for collection via whatever local system is in place, keeping it separate from contamination such as food waste which could render it unsuitable for recycling.
Paper recycling contributes to sustainable development as natural resources are used in an efficient way. Consigning paper to landfills would be an utter waste of a valuable resource. Recycling of fibres allows for a more responsible way of managing soil and forests as trees can store more carbon dioxide for longer. It has been calculated that the recycling of a single tonne of paper saves 17 trees on average.
The biggest source of recovered paper is formed by industry and businesses (50-60%). This also covers converting losses (cuttings, shavings) and returns of unsold newspapers and magazines. The remaining recovered paper comes from households.