Waste not, want not: Britain has become a nation of recyclers - but is it making a difference?

The UK has become very good at recycling but is our rubbish really being put to proper use? Steve Boggan visits a £60m London processing plant to find out

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Have you ever wondered what happens to your recycling? You've cleaned all the gloop out of your tins and plastic cartons, tried to muffle the guilty clinking of all those wine bottles and scrunched up the weekend supplements to create one of the densest objects in the universe.

Depending on where you live, you may have put them into separate boxes, bins, bags or trays, or, if you're lucky like me, you've been able to shove them all inside one bulging pink sack to be dropped unceremoniously on the doorstep.

Then what?

During the past decade, most of us have become used to – if not always adept at – doing our bit for the environment by recycling, but very few of us have any idea what happens to this 'junk' once we throw it out. We may have a vague suspicion that we're doing some good somehow, but trees are still chopped down for paper, oil is still drilled for plastics and ore is still mined for drinks cans and food tins. Some sections of the media say recycling is a con and that most of it still goes to landfill or sails off to an environmentally unsound fate in China – and all the while some of your best friends are telling you that you are a gullible fool.

So are you, or does recycling actually work? If it is true that the longest journey begins with a single step, are your tiny steps really making a difference?

The UK generates 290 million tonnes of waste per year, of which 22.9 million comes from our homes. As recently as the 1980s, we used to recycle hardly any of this. It wasn't until the political growth of the Green movement that many of us began even to think about it. During the year that "Wonderwall" by Oasis was in the charts – 1995 – we recycled just 7.5 per cent of our household waste.

Then came greater awareness of climate change and acceptance that we could not go on harvesting the Earth's resources, using them and throwing them away, forever. The effect this would have on the environment would be unsustainable; we would have to recycle. In a spectacularly non-uniform manner, local authorities, spurred on by EU directives, began to introduce recycling schemes and our love-hate relationship with sorting and collections, ranging from the twice-weekly to the fortnightly, began.

But if you persevered with all this, give yourself a pat on the back. That figure of 7.5 per cent of household waste recycled now stands at 43 per cent and is well on course to meet an EU target of 50 per cent by 2020. For the first time last year, we actually recycledf more of our household waste than we sent to landfill – 10.7 million tonnes compared with 9.6 million (only 10 years ago, 22 million tonnes was put in the ground). As an average individual, you are producing 88kg less annual waste than you did five years ago and, as a nation, the greenhouse gas emissions we produce from it have fallen by 69.7 per cent since 1990.

This seismic change in how we handle waste has been accompanied by a seismic change in how the private sector regards it. An entire market (as yet quite imperfect, as we shall see later) in recycling products has grown, and is still developing, with the profit motive as its irresistible driving force. Only a decade ago, there was little money in recycling; today it generates more than £10bn in sales – a three-fold increase since 1998 – and employs more than 30,000 people.

And the way the market has been structured means that throwing commodities away is increasingly seen as financial insanity. Did you know, for example, that in 1996 Britain's first environmental tax was introduced, a levy on dumping waste into landfill? This tax has been subject to regular hefty increases and from last month stands at £72 per tonne. So if you take a lorry-load of rubbish to a landfill site, you will be charged by the owner around £25 per tonne for the privilege, taking your costs, with the landfill tax, to about £100 per tonne (though there are variations depending on what and where you are dumping).

By contrast, a tonne of old plastic bottles can be sold on the recycling market for between £300 and £400, a tonne of paper is worth £100 and aluminium cans fetch up to £800 a tonne. There's money everywhere. Food can be turned into biogas (a renewable energy resource); more pure gold can be extracted from a tonne of electrical waste than from a tonne of unprocessed gold ore; and whatever remains can be burnt cleanly to power turbines and generate electricity.

All of which – if you are a recycling cynic – begs the question: why on Earth would you throw this stuff away?

My recycling is collected by the French waste management company Veolia, on behalf of Tower Hamlets Council, and whisked off to be sorted into its most valuable commodities: metal (mainly steel and aluminium); paper (flat like newsprint and bulky like cardboard); glass; and plastic. This is done at any one of around 120 prosaically-named 'materials recovery facilities', or MRFs, in the country. It is their job to separate all this stuff into something that re-processors – factories that make products from these 'recyclates' – can use.

In the unlikely event that you should decide to follow your waste too, you may find that the quality of MRFs varies wildly depending on how old they are and how long they have had a contract with your local council. Some are little more than conveyor belts with unhappy-looking people standing next to them, sorting your rubbish by hand.

Others, however – and these are regarded as the future of the industry – are more like spaceships. I am welcomed aboard mine, a gleaming £60m plant in Southwark, south London, by Richard Kirkman, Veolia's head of technology. This is a state-of-the-art facility that can take 'co-mingled' waste – that's all the mixed waste I shove into my one bag – and separate it into 95 per cent pure bales of paper, plastic bottles, tin cans, drinks cans and so on.

Behind the facility is a mountain of recyclables that is scooped up by bulldozers and fed on to wide conveyor belts to be automatically sorted – up to 85,000 tonnes of it a year. It seems an impossible task. At the start of the process, huge blades rotate and allow anything smaller than the gaps between them to fall through.

"2D objects just drop down to the next stage while larger, 3D, objects are carried off in a different direction," says Kirkman. Sure enough, battered old cardboard boxes and Coke bottles float on top of the blades while smaller and flatter items fall on to another conveyor belt below. And while this constant 2D/3D effect is in motion – forever sorting, sifting – conveyor belts fly off in so many different directions like one of MC Escher's neverending staircases.

At length, from high up on a gantry, you soon see less chaos and more order. Glass races along one conveyor belt, paper along another, metal along another still and, the most complex commodity to handle, plastics hurtle down another. And here is where the really clever stuff begins.

There are around 23 different types of plastic in household waste and, as yet, not all of them are recycled. There is a variety of reasons for this but most of them are either practical – plastic bags and food wrap simply clog up the machinery – or financial – the technology to accurately separate all polymers is still being developed, but at great expense. So MRFs and re-processors currently concentrate on two types, polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, which is used in soft drinks and water bottles, and high-density polyethylene, or HDPE, which is more rigid and used for making milk bottles, bottle tops and the trays in food packaging.

In order to separate these from the rest, sensors send out infra-red light and what bounces back tells them what kind of plastic is rushing towards them. The conveyor belt ends in a drop into a hopper – but each useful piece of plastic is hit from below by a computer-targeted jet of high-pressure air that flips it on to another conveyor belt in the blink of an eye, while the unwanted plastics are allowed to fall as waste.

Meanwhile, on the metals section, an electro-magnetic current is sent through the tins and cans, separating them from other unwanted items before they, in turn, are sent their separate ways to be compacted into bales ready for sale on to the re-processors.

It is a process of which Kirkman is very proud. The amount recycled by this plant is the equivalent in carbon terms of taking 14,000 cars off the road each year.

"The easier you make recycling for consumers, the more likely they are to do it," he says. "When you have to sort all your own recycling into separate boxes or bags, the less likely you are to do it. This way, you can put everything into one bag and let us do the sorting for you. Then we can send on high-quality materials to be recycled into newspapers, new cans, bottles and food containers."

I follow a bale of crushed plastic bottles down the road to Dagenham, Essex, where it is received by Closed Loop Recycling and its enigmatic founder, Australian Chris Dow, a passionate advocate of recycling. Here, what starts as a collection of old plastic waste is separated, sorted and graded (again) on a £2m production line before being cleaned, melted and reconstituted into plastic flakes and pellets that look like grey lentils. This is the first plant in the UK to reprocess PET and HDPE to super-clean food-grade standard, which means these flakes and pellets can be turned back into milk bottles, drinks bottles and food cartons. In the past, reaching such high quality and cleanliness simply wasn't possible.

"You Brits should be very proud of yourselves," he says. "When we came up with the idea of setting up a 'closed loop' recycling system, where everything in the chain is recycled, reprocessed, re-used and then recycled again, we were amazed at how everyone here wanted to help us – from Defra [the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs], to food manufacturers, supermarkets, and the makers of containers and bottles. They all said 'We want to recycle. What do you need? How can we help?' The will to recycle in the UK is incredible."

Dow's plant can process up 35,000 tonnes of bottles each year that would otherwise have been exported (probably to commodities-hungry China) or sent to landfill. That's the equivalent of 875 million bottles at a carbon-emission saving of 52,500 tonnes.

In a Perspex box in Closed Loop's reception is an empty Marks & Spencer food cartonf that would normally house a mango chicken and rice dish. It was made from Closed Loop's pellets by Solo Cup Europe, a Cambridgeshire company that now uses an average of 40 per cent recycled material in all its products.

"We reckon this was just about the first food packaging made from our recycled plastic," says Dow, proudly. "It might not look like much, but recycling to this high level, then seeing it come back for reprocessing to be used all over again is what it's all about – recycling in a 'closed loop' so resources are used again and again."

BUT NOT everything in the garden is rosy. For example, although we now recycle 43 per cent of our household waste, around 70 per cent of that is sent to China. Under European law, it is illegal to export waste but not to export materials for recycling.

There have been horror stories of electrical goods being sent to China for 'repair', when in fact they were just being stripped of the heavy metals inside them before being buried. And cases have emerged of children being given this job and its attendant exposure to harmful substances.

Meanwhile, Britain's re-processors – the people who receive sorted materials from the MRFs and make bottles, cans and so on – claim that many of the supposedly pure bales of plastic, paper and cans are actually adulterated and so unusable.

"Where quality falls short, you either have to spend time and money removing all the stuff you don't want – glass from paper, plastic from aluminium – or sell it on to markets abroad such as China, where they have cheap labour, children perhaps, who can sort this all out by hand," says Ray Georgeson, chief executive of the Resource Association, which represents re-processing manufacturers.

"The problem is that the Chinese are getting fussier and developing their own recycling systems, so the day may come when they say they don't want ours. They've already started sending some stuff back that they said was of poor quality. If the MRFs don't start improving the standard of the recyclates we're supposed to work with, and we can no longer send them to China, then as a nation we'll have to start putting them back into landfill again."

Defra is attempting to resolve these bitter differences between the MRFs and the re-processors and recently introduced a 'Quality Action Plan' designed to raise the standard of sorted materials. There will be audits and checks and a voluntary MRF 'Code of Practice' to ensure testing of bales of materials for purity.

The Government believes this will result in transparency and a reliable record of who produces the purest bales of recyclable plastics, cans, paper and so on. And this information will, in turn, foster confidence in pricing scales and further fuel an already- burgeoning market.

The re-processors say the proposals, which are currently out for consultation, will be too easily bypassed. Audits could be fiddled, they argue, but so far Defra is not planning to spend the money on policing them properly.

Meanwhile, we can stop collectively patting ourselves on the back because we really could be doing much, much better. The way local authorities organise collections still confuses consumers. Many environmentalists argue that single bag 'co-mingled' method used to collect my recycling is inefficient and wasteful.

Better, they argue, to have kerbside sorting collections where you have to put glass, paper, wood, cartons, and so on into separate boxes or bags. Workers walk alongside the collection lorry and further sort this so that when it is sent to the recyclers it is 100 per cent pure glass or plastics or whatever.

"If you do it like this, then you can cut the MRFs out completely," says Andy Moore of the Campaign for Real Recycling. "At the moment, we're not truly recycling because the re-processors can't use much of what they get. If you want to recycle paper, you can't if it has a load of glass in it. Kerbside sorting like this makes sure everything is in the best condition to be recycled back into use."

In March, however, the High Court disagreed with him in a Judicial Review judgment that rejected an attempt by his organisation to force councils to collect in this way.

"Kerbside sorting is terrific if you have the luxury of wide streets without much traffic and people with gardens or space to house several bins," says Mike Jones, spokesman on environmental affairs for the Local Government Association. "But if you're in a busy inner-city area with crowded streets and a population living in flats, then you can't expect people to have a variety of containers to separate stuff into."

This, he says, is why local authorities collect differently depending on their needs, traffic problems and so on. So now you know.

So what of the future?

Defra figures show that we recycled 610,000 tonnes of plastic in 2011 but almost 427,000 tonnes of that went to China. (This might seem scandalous but much of that waste came to us from China as products aboard ships that would return empty if they weren't carrying our recyclables.) And, in spite of the best efforts of people like Closed Loop, 240,000 tonnes of plastic bottles that could have been recycled were sent to landfill. That is our fault – if we throw them out with our food waste, then they won't be recycled.

Slowly, plants are being developed that will focus on the problematic plastics that aren't yet being recycled, while the merits of anaerobic digestion for food waste are attracting investment from companies who realise they can make a profit from producing biogas. And instead of sending 70 per cent of our plastic abroad for recycling, the Government wants 42 per cent of it to be recycled domestically by 2017 (a target which some in the industry believe is overly ambitious).

"There is more that can be done, but we have achieved an awful lot in a relatively short space of time," says Liz Godwin, CEO of WRAP (Waste & Resources Action Plan), an independent body set up by the Government to promote the recycling business.

"Consumers need better, and more regular, information on what can be recycled and how. And at the moment, the lack of credible information about the quality of materials sent from MRFs to re-processors is resulting in a similar lack of trust between them.

"Better information will improve this and allow re-processors to plan for the future, knowing they will have a reliable supply of material they can work with."

What is certain is that unless we improve our capacity to recycle more of our waste at home, then we could face problems when tiger economies like China no longer need it.

So, if this were a mid-term report for a student of recycling, it might say: 'A bit sloppy in class and sometimes confused by the subject. Spends too much time fighting with other pupils'.

And, with a hint of optimism, it would conclude: 'Not an A-student yet – but trying hard and getting better each year."

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