I am standing in what will soon be the UK’s only carton recycling facility in Stainland near Halifax, Yorkshire. In front of me are huge bales of waste cartons – Tetra Pak, to you and me – waiting to be recycled. I wonder where they’re from. “That one’s from the Nottingham hub”, answers Fay Dashper, recycling operations manager, ACE UK, pointing at a bale seemingly indistinguishable from any other. “You can tell from the shape of the bale and the quality of the material… I’m a bit of a carton geek”.
It’s Dashper’s job to be a carton geek. While Tetra Pak has become the colloquial term for the plastic-coated cardboard that packages fruit juice and pureed tomatoes, there are two other manufacturers – Elopak and SIG Combibloc. ACE UK (the Alliance for Beverage Cartons and the Environment) represents all three. It has teamed up with recycling company Sonoco Alcore to create this processing plant to stop cartons being shipped overseas or, worse, to landfill. This one factory alone will process up to 40% of the UK’s cartons when officially operational in September, turning them into “coreboard” tubes with uses from carpet rolls to clingfilm.
By bringing new recycling capability to the UK, ACE is hoping to promote the environmental credentials of its product. “Because we are opening this recycling facility, a lot of local authorities are very interested in bringing cartons here”, informs Dashper. “We are talking to one group of seven Local Authorities right now that are going to start taking cartons at kerb-side because this facility is opening, and we expect several more will follow.”
Cartons, ACE UK believes, have had some unfair press. Three types of virgin wood go into one carton (recycled fibres aren’t strong enough): spruce, pine and birch. They are lined with polyethelyne and/or aluminium (not wax, as some believe). Until recently the majority of local authorities didn’t accept them for recycling, so they went to landfill.
ACE UK argues that councils have previously had no incentive to find recycling outlets for cartons. Local authority recycling targets are weight-based, with the effect of huge increases for food and garden waste recycling but not for the lightweight carton. With plenty of carton recycling factories overseas but none in the UK, some councils’ ethical “no export” policy has even had the perverse effect of sending recyclable material to landfill. ACE UK attempted to counter this by installing their own Bringbank recycling banks for eco-conscious consumers to take their cartons to, which were then shipped to Europe. However, the success of the scheme was limited. Dashper tells of one Bringbank found with two prosthetic legs jammed in it. One still had a slipper on.
The story of cartons is not dissimilar to that of UK recycling at large. We currently produce more recyclate (the industry term for recyclable waste) than we have the capacity to recycle domestically. In part this is because we’ve got much better at collecting it – we now recycle 43% of household waste compared to just 14% ten years ago.
A survey last year by industry body the Resource Association and You-Gov found that 73% of UK adults did not know what happened to their recycling, and 32% said that better information would make them more likely to recycle. “We genuinely believe that transparency is the name of the game”, says Ray Georgeson, chief executive of the Resource Association and former director of WRAP. “The more you can demonstrate to people what actually happens to recyclate and where it goes, the more confidence you will build in the industry”.
An added need for keeping recycling at home is that China is increasingly refusing our refuse. Operation Green Fence was initiated in February by President Xi Jinping to ensure the recycling exported to China meets far stricter quality standards. “Because of the way we collect a lot of our material there is often contamination”, says Georgeson. “The Chinese have now got very fussy; they are protecting their own increasingly high end manufacturing base, plus they are generating more of their own recyclate through increased domestic consumption, and so need less of ours.” He says this has “sent shock waves” though the industry, but also argues it is an opportunity for the industry to change tack and build the domestic market.
The new carton facility in Yorkshire could be seen as part of that broader trend. Georgeson cites other recent manufacturing success stories in UK recycling such as Closed Loop in East London, Saica in Manchester, Eco Plastics in Lincolnshire – the world’s biggest plastic bottle recycling manufacturing plant – and UPM’s huge paper plant in North Wales. However there have also been closures, including a previous short-lived attempt to recycle cartons by the Smith Anderson Group in Fife, Scotland.