Coronavirus: UK faces cardboard shortage due to crisis

The UK could be hit by a national cardboard shortage as more and more local councils suspend their regular recycling collections owing to pressures caused by the coronavirus outbreak, the industry’s trade body has warned.

The Recycling Association said it has huge concerns about a looming European and even worldwide shortage of fibre – used paper and cardboard – which is used to manufacture millions of cardboard boxes essential for food and medical supplies distribution.

Struggling to cope with a surge in rubbish collection equivalent to levels at Christmas now that households are in virtual lockdown, local authorities are increasingly scaling back and even suspending food, green waste and recycling collections.

With home deliveries skyrocketing, much of the fibre will end up in general household bins, which means it will be incinerated or go into landfill, the The Recycling Association (TRA) warns. Valuable quantities of fibre have also been lost from major high street retailers such as McDonald’s, Primark, John Lewis, Argos and B&Q after non-essential businesses were told to close.

Quick guide UK lockdown: what are the coronavirus restrictions?
What do the restrictions involve?

People in the UK will only be allowed to leave their home for the following purposes:

  • Shopping for basic necessities, as infrequently as possible
  • One form of exercise a day – for example a run, walk, or cycle – alone or with members of your household
  • Any medical need, to provide care or to help a vulnerable person
  • Travelling to and from work, but only where this is absolutely necessary and cannot be done from home

Police will have the powers to enforce the rules, including through fines and dispersing gatherings. To ensure compliance with the instruction to stay at home, the government will:

  • Close all shops selling non-essential goods, including clothing and electronic stores and other premises including libraries, playgrounds and outdoor gyms, and places of worship
  • Stop all gatherings of more than two people in public – excluding people you live with
  • Stop all social events, including weddings, baptisms and other ceremonies, but excluding funerals

Parks will remain open for exercise, but gatherings will be dispersed.

Simon Ellin, chief executive of the TRA, said: “Of huge concern to us is the signs that Europe is already becoming short of fibre with which to make cardboard boxes. Food and medical supplies all move by cardboard box and if we can’t make cardboard boxes, everything stops. If councils stop collecting recycling, and many are, all this fibre is burnt or goes to landfill and we will be short.”

The body represents more than 100 organisations from the collection and processing sector, ranging from independent merchants, brokers, waste management companies and mills. It is the largest network of independent waste and recycling operators in the UK, with a combined annual turnover in excess of GBP2bn.

Fibre recycling is a global market and materials flow across Europe and the world, but the lockdown means physical barriers are increasingly springing up to prevent this distribution. In Germany – the biggest European player – significant volumes of fibre come from Poland, but the Poland-Germany border is now shut. This has meant Germany is now seeking material from France and the UK.

A spokesperson for the Local Government Association said: “Councils are leading local efforts to support communities through the coronavirus crisis. As councils prioritise protecting the vulnerable, there will be inevitable disruption to other important services, such as bin collections and street cleaning.

“Some councils are having to change their waste and recycling services as coronavirus impacts on their collection staff. They will continue to work hard to keep waste and recycling services working as effectively as possible.”

In some parts of the UK there has been a surge in “backyard burning” – which is illegal – following the closure of recycling centres and refuse tips because of the virus.

Fire crews in Wigan, for example, were recently called to at least 12 fires involving household waste following the closure of local recycling centres.

Meanwhile, Unite, the UK and Ireland’s largest union, is warning that some refuse contractors and local councils across the UK were failing to ensure that refuse workers are physically distancing and are provided with other safety measures to prevent coronavirus.

It has identified numerous reports of workers being expected to travel with three or four other workers in the cab of refuse wagons in clear contravention of physical distancing rules. It also reported complaints of a lack of gloves and hand sanitiser, failure to deep clean wagons and other issues.

Unite national officer for local authorities Jim Kennedy said: “Unite members recognise they are essential workers and want to deliver this key service, but they are becoming increasingly frightened that they, and by implication their families, are being exposed to unnecessary and needless risks, due to the flagrant disregard of contractors and councils of the rules.”

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