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Thursday, April 18, 2024

Recycling nature’s packaging

Wood reprocessing is on the rise and the industry’s trade body has been campaigning tirelessly to ensure the trend is allowed to continue, writes Julia Turner

Julia Turner

Executive Director

Wood Recyclers Association

Ever wondered what happens to wooden packaging when it’s sent off for recycling? The answer is a myriad of end uses, depending on the type of wood it is. What is clear though is that the amount of previously used wood now being recycled in the UK is on the rise. Last year the amount of waste wood reprocessed in the UK rose by 1.5 percent compared to 2017.

There was a 10 percent increase specifically in the processing of grade A material (packaging waste wood) into animal bedding, and biomass wood fuel usage was up by 24 percent overall, compared to 2017. Waste wood used as feedstock to manufacture panel board also used around 900,000 tonnes.

The figures are the findings of an annual survey of our members which showed that WRA member companies themselves processed 3.4 million tonnes of waste wood in total in 2018, an increase of more than six percent on 2017. This is a reflection not only of more waste wood being processed, but more processors joining the WRA, which now represents over 90 percent of the UK’s waste wood industry.

Using these statistics, we can estimate the total UK figure for waste wood processed last year was 3.75 million tonnes, an increase of 1.43 percent on the previous year. We can also estimate that the amount of waste wood generated in 2018 was around 4.5 million tonnes compared to five million tonnes in 2017. This, we believe, is a reflection of fluctuating economic activity including a slight downturn in construction and DIY.

We feel our statistics show the UK’s waste wood industry remains buoyant, but they also highlight that a drop in estimated waste wood availability could see us either needing to import waste wood as more biomass plants come on stream, or looking to use alternative fuels. Biomass usage in the UK was up by 24 percent to 2.1 million tonnes last year, a direct result of the number of new biomass plants that have come on stream to produce alternative energy. Biomass is now the biggest single user of waste wood in the UK and has doubled since 2016.

There are circa 30 larger scale biomass plants in total planned for the UK. We don’t expect there to be any more but when all of those are commissioned and operational, we will see a huge demand for waste wood in the UK which could mean we have to import some fuel.

The recent growth in our waste wood sector has been happening alongside tremendous change to the regulations that govern us. In particular the Environment Agency’s (EA) Fire Prevention Plan (FPP) Guidance and its requirement to classify waste wood at the front end of recycling.

With FPP, we faced a stand-off with the EA who wanted to introduce some strict guidance for waste wood operators to adhere to regarding fire prevention measures. Unfortunately the initial guidance was way too strict and took a one-size-fits-all approach which threatened the future viability of the sector. However, following many meetings and frank discussions, we managed to secure an open dialogue with the EA which led to a better understanding on both sides and ultimately more flexibility within the guidance to allow bonafide operators to continue with their business.

In December last year we became the first material stream to publish sector specific guidance to help wood recyclers and reprocessors gain an FPP. That Guide outlines the fraction sizes of waste wood that may be stored, the difference in their storage requirements, as well as how to manage seasonality challenges and how to explain these in an FPP.

Crucially the EA had listened to our concerns and were willing to work with us to find solutions that worked for operators whilst achieving their main goal of protecting the public and the environment. Following that project, we have been working closely with the EA and other industry trade bodies to ensure that waste wood is properly classified and ends up in the right end market as well as identifying the real scale of hazardous waste wood in the UK waste wood stream.

This is an ongoing project but to date it is clear that the percentage of hazardous wood in our waste stream is currently less than 0.1 percent. We have recently started testing samples of waste wood and hope to have the project concluded by the autumn.

Next on the horizon for the WRA and the wood recycling industry is to keep an eye on DEFRA’s proposed new targets for the recycling of wood packaging, which are set to decrease in the run up to 2030 under new proposals. DEFRA say this is because wood packaging placed on the market will increase at a higher rate than the tonnage of wood being recycled. We don’t agree.

We fear lowering the targets will take the momentum out of the recent positive steps we’ve seen in packaging-wood-waste moving up the waste hierarchy of reuse, recycling and recovery. So in light of that we will be lobbying DEFRA to try to ensure the targets remain higher. Watch this space.

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