We don’t want your Christmas cards in your green bin
Published: 4 December 2020
In his regular feature, Denis the Dustcart talks about greetings cards – including Christmas cards and how we do not want them in the green bin this year.
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It may come as a shock to some of you that we don’t want greetings cards – including Christmas cards – in your green bin, even if they don’t have glitter or foil on them.
As with many things in the world of waste, recycling fibre products (card and paper) isn’t as straightforward as it would seem. Digging a little deeper into the situation reveals layers of complexity.
While glitter and foil are obviously to be avoided, contaminating entire paper loads and rendering them near useless, you could be forgiven for wondering why ‘normal’ cards don’t make the cut.
Well, firstly there’s the confusion we’d cause by having to prescribe to the public which types of cards we could accept and which types we couldn’t. Cards vary so widely in composition and sometimes it’s difficult for a consumer to tell whether or not a card contains a contaminant – i.e. something incompatible with paper recycling.
Then there’s the quality of the card itself. When you consider that greetings cards are produced very cheaply in their millions, it’s perhaps easier to accept that they are not of a sufficient quality to recycle along with the higher-grade cardboard Exeter receives without diluting the quality of that material.
Dilute the quality of the material and you limit the potential for it to be recycled into good quality products. In short, cards make very recyclable material into not very recyclable material.
Separating cards from the rest of the recycling isn’t possible. There aren’t enough spaces on the sorting line to have people picking off cards for baling separately, and if our pickers were to do it on top of their usual load then they’d end up missing other, more recyclable items.
If all greetings cards were plain and equal – i.e. single-ply mixed-fibre paper products – we would nevertheless have to make a decision about what we would actually be presenting to the market before accepting them.
What would the material become? Would recycling it actually be an efficient use of energy and resources? Would it be financially viable? The decision must be finely and fully considered, environmentally, ecologically and economically.
Cereal boxes and loo-roll cores are also single-ply mix-fibre paper products, so why do we accept them and not cards? Because they are higher-quality brown board and present significantly fewer problems than greetings cards when they are included within a higher-grade load. They can also be sold as a separate, mixed-board commodity.
Another potential shocker: none of these products – cereal boxes, loo rolls or cards – are actually considered, within the waste industry, to be cardboard. Only corrugated cardboard gets called cardboard. Mixing too much single-ply paper ‘board’ in with proper cardboard dilutes its ‘grade’ and recyclability.
Exeter is the only local authority in Devon and across the peninsula – and even Dorset, Somerset and Avon – that can, through its sorting processes, produce a higher grade of cardboard and thus ensure the material is recycled into quality products while achieving a much higher income for public services.
Only 10% of this high-quality grade is permitted to be made up of single-ply paper ‘board’. Anything more would result in our high grade loads being rejected or purchased as a ‘mixed grade’ capable only of being recycled into products of less quality and therefore with less potential to be recycled further.
So why not move the lower quality single-ply mix into our paper stream?
Quite simply, it isn’t permitted.
Exeter produces a high-quality paper stream. This could not withstand the introduction of poor-quality, potentially contaminated short-fibre products like Christmas cards and wrapping paper.
Our best option is to say we don’t want cards, thereby reducing the number we do get.
Ultimately, however, if something is difficult to recycle then looking to improve recycling processes isn’t going to be the best solution for that waste – not when what it is that can’t be recycled is innately harmful.
For paper, think deforestation, transportation, replacing old forests with monocultures, biodiversity loss, water usage, bleaching chemicals, more transportation.
If something is designed for single-use, the ultimate solution to that waste is not recycling or composting: those are just ways of lessening the harm the item has already done or will do to the environment.
The solution is for it not to become waste in the first place. In the case of greetings cards, the solution is for us not to buy them and ultimately for fewer to be made.
I’m not suggesting we get rid of cards altogether. There are times when sending a handwritten communication is completely necessary, such as in reaching out to a lonely relative. But in most circumstances there are clear alternatives.
If a card once a year is the only communication we have with certain people, surely an electronic message would do where one can be received?
Or even just a letter on paper. We want paper – and you can write more on it, too. The quality of the content is always more important than how it looks.
The same goes for recycling.
Here in Exeter we have spent several years improving the quality of our card from a low-grade mixed grade to a high-quality grade. We’ve managed this with the great help of Exeter’s residents, who we assist in navigating the seemingly infinite consequences of different purchases.
When we say we don’t want cards in the green bin, it’s actually because we take the quality of our recycling so seriously. It means we care about what our material can be recycled into, not just how much we send off for recycling.