A year unlike any of us has ever experienced Says Simon Ellin of the Recycling Association

At this time last year, Covid-19 was first emerging in China, but I doubt many of us in the UK anticipated the life-changing impact it would have on our personal and professional lives and the damage it would cause the economy.

Earlier in the year when we entered the first lockdown, we saw an immediate drop in best-quality retail tonnages (apart from supermarkets of course) and a big increase in online shopping. That also meant more fibre was entering the local authority stream, but many councils suddenly stopped collecting due to Covid fears. The Recycling Association used our media and government contacts to help ensure local authority collections continued and essential material could be used to manufacture cardboard packaging for food and medicines.

This has also been the year when China confirmed our worst fears and from the end of this year, we will no longer be able to export all paper and cardboard grades there. As the year has gone on, China has bought less and less and we have needed to send material to other destinations.

As we enter 2021, we will need to keep markets open by providing them with high quality material. I’m already concerned that some markets will become harder to access, Indonesia in particular has proven challenging in the second half of this year with its new registration process that will come into effect in the New Year. We’ve also seen Turkey reduce import quota and Vietnam announce a ban on mixed paper at the end of 2021.

At the time of writing, negotiations between the UK and EU over a trade deal didn’t appear close to being resolved and those sending material into Europe have concerns over logistics due to potential huge queues of lorries heading into ports. We are likely to face more costs from the bureaucracy of dealing with this, but we are also potentially facing additional customs charges depending on where we send the material. Brexit is adding to the uncertainty we all face, which when combined with the ongoing Covid pandemic, makes for very challenging times.

Next year, I will be representing our membership and the wider recycling industry in the consultations on the Resources and Waste Strategy and one of my priorities will be ensuring that we improve the quality of paper and cardboard collections for recycling. Additional Extended Producer Responsibility that is included in the Strategy should enable more funding to reach local authorities, and as part of these consultations, I will be pressing for better collection of paper and cardboard for quality.

Indeed, the proposed introduction of cartons and films and flexibles as core materials to be collected by councils makes it imperative that the quality of paper and cardboard is maintained. I don’t think it is impossible for local authorities to collect paper and cardboard in a way to maintain quality and I will be putting that case as part of our consultation responses and our ongoing communications strategy.
It would be easy to be pessimistic about the challenges facing us in 2021, but I prefer to be more optimistic. I’m constantly astounded by the resilience and flexibility shown by our industry. This year has proved that we can always find a way to keep material moving. While we saw low prices at the start of the year, we have at least seen some recovery as the year has gone on.

You need a crystal ball to understand what might happen in 2021, but I do know that the recycling industry will continue to develop existing markets and find new markets for recovered fibre. Finally, at the end of an extraordinary year, I hope you and your families are able to enjoy the festive period and I’d like to take this opportunity to wish you a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

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