Rise of the iPad could spell trouble for waste economics

The growing trend of consuming media on tablet devices such as iPads could have "profound consquences" for municipal recycling figures, a leading waste analyst has warned.

James Fulford, a director with Eunomia Research & Consulting, argues that as electronic media starts to overtake that of printed, local authorities and MRF operators could suffer financial repercussions due to falling newsprint volumes in recycling collections.

Writing in his latest blog for Isonomia, Fulford said that newsprint has been “fundamental” to council recycling collection schemes since they were first established, being relatively cheap to collect and commanding a healthy resale price.

According to recent figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulations, around 4 million fewer newspapers were circulated in 2013 than 2008, meaning a lot less paper is now available for material capture.

“It’s not just waste collectors such as local authorities that are affected, the souring of our love affair with newsprint has impacts further along the value chain,” Fulford observed.

He points out that for MRFs, the cost per tonne of sorting light plastics is much higher than for paper, meaning that the falling paper content with a tonne of commingled material is problematic.

“Even worse, MRFs are designed with a specific material mix in mind,” he maintains. “Although there’s some flexibility in the system, input composition changes eventually result in the equipment becoming de-optimised for what it has to deal with.”

On a wider level, Fulford believes such a change in waste composition will also have implications for how the UK meets its obligations under the EU waste framework directive.

“Each member state is obliged to reduce the quantity of biodegradable municipal waste it sends to landfill. However the way we calculate how we’re doing is based on assumptions regarding the quantity of newspaper in the mix, which are now out of date,” he pointed out.

“Newsprint is 100% biodegradable and its shrinking significant is almost certainly means that the biodegradability of local authority collected waste has declined. The UK is therefore almost certainly over reporting how well we’re doing against these fundamentally important targets.”

Going forward, Fulford believes the Government must work more closely with the recycling industry to take account of these trends and implement measures to help it adapt to these changing waste compositions.

Maxine Perella

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie