Monday, July 31, 2006

MRF Visit!

Exciting day today - went on a visit with members of the Sustainable Development Committee to the Materials Recycling Facility (MRF) in Greenwich (yes, I know, I'm a sad green geek!). Part of the reason for the visit, besides to see how it worked, was to reassure members of the committee, and hopefully in turn the public, that the materials put into the green wheelie bins are being recycled. Public confidence in recycling has taken a bit of a battering since some rather negative programmes on TV recently about waste being shipped to China etc. Residents also get confused when they think their recycling is going into an ordinary waste van - the council uses the same vans for both recycling and non-recyclable waste.

Have to say I was really impressed by the facility. All of the recyclable waste collected in green bins in Lewisham goes to the Greenwich MRF, which has been in operation for about 18 months now. It is collected first at Hinkcroft recycling in Deptford, then bulked up and put in articulated lorries, rather than every recycling van going all the way to MRF. Once there it goes along an array of conveyor belts and crushing drums which seperate paper, cardboard, glass, tins, plastic bottles and non-recyclable waste. The vast majority of the waste is sorted automatically, but pickers are employed to pull out anything that might contaminate the materials eg food waste. Between 93% and 95% of the waste sent there is seperated into recyclate, which is then sold on to reprocessors. The remaining 5-7% is residual waste which is returned to SELCHP and incinerated.

It is one of the few MRFs in the country/world that is able to deal with glass. It does this by crushing it into small pieces which then fall through a mesh, while larger items such as newspapers go down a different chute. The downside of dealing with glass in this way is that it is not suitable to be recycled back into glass bottles, but is sold as aggregate. This reduces the amount of waste going to landfill and the amount of aggregate being quarried, but is not as energy efficient as recycling it into glass (or better still reusing bottles, of course). The alternative would be to collect glass from households seperately, which would be expensive and result in more vans and more pollution.

Apparently 60% of the volume of recyclate processed at the plant is paper and cardboard, 20% is glass and the remainder is plastic bottles and tins. The facility can process 12 tonnes of material an hour and will soon be working at full capacity 24 hours a day to meet demand. At the moment the MRF can only deal with plastic bottles, as these are the types of plastic there is a market for - yoghurt pots, plastic trays etc get filtered out and rejected, or they lower the overall quality of the product and hence the price. Plastic bags also slow down the process and have to be removed by hand.

When we asked about where the recyclate was reprocessed, we were told that the paper is exported to Malaysia and the plastic goes to China. This is apparently because the markets for recyclate are more developed there than here, Cleanaway, who run the MRF get more money and paper recyclers in the UK refuse to take paper that has been mixed with glass during the sorting process (even though it is seperated). Cleanaway track the goods from when they leave the UK right until it is delivered to the buyer, and are confident that it is being recycled, not being landfilled. They are keen to make the distinction between waste and sorted recyclables, known as recyclate, which is a commodity which is bought and sold. When we expressed concern about the distance the material travelled, we were assured that the material is put into containers that have brought goods to the UK and would otherwise be returned empty and therefore it is not that environmentally unfriendly.

Clearly, it is far from ideal that the materials are shipped to the otherside of the world to be recycled, but the market here is not sufficiently developed, and the infrastructure to reprocess so much material is currently lacking. It is arguably greener to ship recyclate to China for reprocessing than to landfill it here, but the long-term aim must be to develop our domestic recycling industry. Apparently in other countries such as Germany, government subsidy is greater to support the reprocessing, and of course they are also streets ahead of us on reusing packaging, so the type and quantity of waste they produce is very different. The difference between the recyclate exported from Greenwich MRF and that shown on the BBC TV programme which caused the controversy is that the material from Greenwich is sorted and basically a raw material ready to be used, whereas the programmes showed mixed recyclables arriving in China some of the containers were contaminated with food waste and by the time they arrived a large amount of the material was unrecyclable.

Lots of food for thought, but the basic message has got to be: keep recycling, and keep trying to reduce your waste. Oh and only plastic bottles - no plastic bags, yoghurt pots etc!

Greenwich MRF Brochure. Incidentally, I was amused by Cleanaway's slogan: 'For a greener world think blue' - not quite sure who got there first, Cleanaway or the Conservatives!


Andrew Brown said...

It always surprised me that people believed the conspiracy theory that all the recycling went to SELCHP.

Of course I have had it put to me that doing that would have a beneficial impact on CO2 emissions; but I've never seen any compelling evidence for that.

Anonymous said...

Hi Andrew. I can see there's quite a leap of faith involved in accepting that glass, paper, tins and plastic bottles all put in together are seperated and recycled, and people don't understand when they see the recycling go into the same colour van as their rubbish. Maybe smthg like a removable sign on the van saying it's collecting recycling today might help, plus a bit more awareness-raising of what happens to the recycling. One of the sustainable development cttee members suggested that the recycling champions/schools could also win a trip to MRF, this may then be covered in local papers and raise awareness.

Derek Wall said...

Hi Sue,

interesting post, this is a conspiracy that will run and run. Good to see despite the obvious problems that recycling does occur, rather than waste being taken to a large hole in Mongolia.

I have got very obssessive about recycling, I didn't use to be because you can take lifestyle change as a guilt trip thing rather than sorting out the big structures, because of the incineration issue.

Here in the wilds of Berkshire, with a bit of care I can compost most of my food waste, cardboard, my large composter and worm bin.

Does need care or you will get rats, etc!

There is a bottle bank around the corner, so I send one of my children around straining under the weight of my beer bottles...and collections for paper, tins and bottles.

It just seems wrong to burn or land fill resources.

Incinerators very very nasty...not really the dioxins (I think they don't come from modern incinerators) but the micro particles that mess up our health big time



David Wells said...

I am concerned about how comitted Lewisham council is to recycling other products. I started saving all my plastics that were not suitable for the green bin. This reduced my refuse dramatically. Once I had several bag loads I took them down to Landman way where I knew they have a Plastics skip However the skip was not there and I was told to put it in General (Combustible) waste whereafetr it was, presumably, incinerated. The same thing happened a few weeks later with a load of wood I took down becuase the wood skip was full! I am a comitted recycler but even I started to lose heart in trying to recycle anything that the green bin won't accept. Is there anything we can do with other plastics including bags other than just trying to reduce and reuse? Does the coucil do anything other than burn these products behind our backs?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for bringing this to my attention, and trying to do your bit - I'll follow up with officers about this. Was it last thing on a Sunday perhaps and the skips were unusually full? It certainly seems to defeat the object. The council is limited in what plastics can go in the green bins by what the MRF contractors can sell on. Plastic bags are a problem for them - I'm sure you know that some supermarkets take them back and recycle them, but not using them in the first place is certainly the better option.