Recycling abroad vs incineration in the UK
Some decisions about a zero waste lifestyle are simple – do you choose the loose veg from the farm shop or the pre packaged vegetables from the supermarket? It’s a no-brainer, right?
Other questions such as is it better to ship products abroad for recycling or should we incinerate in the UK, are more challenging to answer.
One of our facebook readers asked about Tetra Pak cartons, incineration and recycling. She emailed her district council to ask why they didn’t provide recycling points for Tetra Paks.
The answer from her council was:
“We do not collect Tetra packs [sic] as these are bulked in the UK and then shipped all the way to Sweden to recycle the foil part. [We take] an ethical stand on this and [do] not view this as a sustainable way to deal with this material. Instead by placing them in the refuse bin they go to one of the three energy from waste plants and are incinerated with the rest of the refuse, to generate electricity.”
This left her wanting more information and she asked if I, or anyone else, could comment on whether incineration was better than shipping abroad for recycling.
While I could see their point about not shipping to Sweden, I personally favour recycling abroad because parts of the packaging are reused and recycled. Once something is incinerated it’s gone and cannot be reused. Aluminium is a very valuable material and recycling it saves about 90% of making new.
However I decided to put the question to Nick Price, Recycling officer at Tetra Pak and here is his response:
“The Smith Anderson mill in Fife used to be able to recycle all cartons collected in the UK, but it had to close in 2006 due largely to the effects of significantly increased energy costs on their main paper recycling business.
Since the closure of Smith Anderson, we have guaranteed that the collection and recycling of all post-consumer beverage cartons has continued. This is the most important thing in helping residents across the UK to recycle as much of their packaging as possible.
Since the closure we have undertaken trials with a number of UK mills and are also using mills in neighbouring European countries (Sweden) to recycle our cartons and minimise the distance the material is transported.
We are keen to find a UK based processing solution for carton recycling. However, current Life Cycle Analysis data shows that it is favourable for us to ship baled carton to Sweden for recycling rather than recycle the material in the UK using fossil fuel as an energy source.
Therefore, we have to have the right process; one that can make the best use of the excellent quality of fibre found in cartons, and uses as much green energy as possible. We continue to work on a UK processing solution that fits the bill.
It is not unusual for recyclates collected in the UK to be reprocessed in other countries – these are globally-traded materials – but we’re committed to working with other partners in the paper industry to re-establish carton recycling in this country. Until we find a new permanent solution, we have taken responsibility to ensure all excess material is recycled at the nearest available mills within neighbouring countries in Europe. Finally, it’s worth remembering that, after the bring banks are emptied, the cartons are bulked-up at regional ‘hubs’ until there is sufficient material to allow a transport-efficient trip to the paper mill.
Incineration is certainly one alternative which some local authorities may use as their chosen way of taking cartons out of the waste stream. The work we’re doing is to ensure that – for those local authorities who don’t want to incinerate – there are adequate carton recycling facilities in place.
I’d love to hear your views – what do you think is the more sustainable option – recycle abroad or incinerate here?