Where does all our rubbish go?

By Malcolm Macalister Hall
Monday 06 February 2006 01:00
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It's like a post-Apocalyptic mirage: towering white pyramids that close up reveal themselves as the sordid, humdrum detritus of all our lives: plastic bags, wine bottles, baked-bean tins, broken glass, paper.

Seagulls wheel overhead and huge bulldozers ram this mess together. To say anything to anyone, you have to stand close or shout.

This is the reality of recycling; our attempt to mitigate the effects of our wastefulness, in a society which compels us to be so. If you buy anything more than an apple in a greengrocer, you're virtually forced to throw away something else. Here at Grosvenor Waste Management's plant at Crayford, south-east of London, they try to sort it out.

About 4,000 tons of stuff for recycling arrives here each week, from nearly 30 local authorities' recycling collections. "This is a tiny fraction of what London produces," shouts Mary Corin, Grosvenor's director of recycling development.

The UK produces 400 million tons of waste every year. Most comes from quarrying, mining, demolition and construction. Around 30 million tons is household waste. For every ton of household rubbish, commercial, industrial and construction businesses produce a further six.

The plant here - Britain's biggest - handles the jumbled product of an increasingly common system of collecting recycling, which is known as "commingled". Instead of cans, bottles, paper and plastic being loaded into separate compartments on a recycling lorry, "commingled" recycling is compacted in what looks like a normal refuse truck.

Though this system has its critics - Friends of the Earth among them - it is quicker and cheaper for councils to collect it in this way. It doesn't need to be separated into different hoppers, and because it's crushed, each truck can collect from many more households. But the councils then pay to have the mess sorted out into its different components at a materials recovery facility such as Grosvenor.

Vast drums rumble around, sifting out cans, small items and glass. Conveyor belts speed past magnets and air jets and photo-recognition equipment, to separate tin from aluminium, paper from plastic. Lines of employees check the final conveyors, plucking out items by hand.

Britain's rush to recycle - driven by EU and Government targets - means UK reprocessors cannot cope with it all. At least 4 million tons of UK industrial, commercial and household waste is shipped overseas, much of it to feed the economies of India, China and South-east Asia.

Environmental campaigners say this is dumping, and that much of our waste paper, cardboard, plastic and electronics are sorted in an ecologically disastrous system. But China is desperate for every kind of raw material, and, in the madhouse of globalised trade, it makes financial sense to send some of our household plastic and paper there. Many ships that bring Far Eastern imports to Europe would otherwise return all but empty.

Grosvenor's managing director John Viviani says: "You can send a container to the other side of the world for less than it would cost to move it to Manchester by road."

Friends of the Earth regard commingled collection as not "best practice" because of the energy required to sort it out later, and because some of the load - especially paper and glass - will inevitably be contaminated and therefore of lower value,

In Haringey, north London, the council has worked hard to achieve a recycling rate of 20 per cent. It operates five commingled vehicles and its recycling manager, Paul Vanston, says that the system has benefits. Fewer trucks can serve more households, and collect a wider range of materials - including garden waste and plastics - which the normal trucks don't have room for.

"Half of our residents recycle rarely, or not at all; if we could get them just to use the services we already provide, we could easily get up to 30 or 40 per cent," he says.

And since, with commingling, residents can put all their recycling in one bag, they don't have to sort it out. So they've been recycling more - which has got to be a good thing.

From bin to beyond - what happens to our waste

PLASTIC

On average, every household uses 373 plastic bottles each year, of which only 29 (less than 10 per cent) are recycled. The quantity of plastic bottles recycled has more than doubled since 2002. Recycling one can save enough energy to light a 60W bulb for up to six hours.

Plastic is one of the hardest materials to recycle, as it needs to be sorted. Bottles are the easiest. .After being processed into flakes or pellets, they can be remade into fleece jackets, traffic cones, drainage pipes, street furniture, garden furniture, carpets, stuffing for sleeping bags, and toys and playground equipment.

PAPER

Paper is one of the most successful areas of recycling. Some 57 per cent of paper used in Britain is recovered and recycled. Because the UK makes 6 million tons of paper a year - but imports a further 6 million - UK papermills are already using all the recycled paper they can. To avoid its being dumped or burned, excess "waste" paper must be exported for recycling. UK papermakers use a higher proportion of recycled paper (74 per cent) than any other European country (average 45 per cent).

CANS

Aluminium drinks cans are most likely go to Novelis Recycling in Warrington, which operates Europe's only dedicated aluminium can recycling plant. Five billion aluminium cans are used in the UK each year - but nearly two-thirds are dumped, even though aluminium is one of the easiest materials to recycle, one of the most environmentally beneficial and valuable.

It's the only recyclable material that covers its cost of collection and reprocessing, and can be endlessly recycled with no loss of quality, saving 95 per cent of the energy required to make cans from raw materials. The low recycling rate is mainly because a third of all canned drinks are consumed away from home, and then put in litter bins. "Tin cans" are really steel. Every year some 13 billion are used in the UK, and even though each one is 100 per cent recyclable more than half are landfilled. Recycling at UK steel plants saves up to 75 per cent of energy needed to make new cans from virgin materials.

KITCHEN & GARDEN WASTE

This is composted and either sold on to horticultural suppliers, or used in parks. It is the most-collected type of recycling. Local authorities have made great efforts to collect kitchen and garden waste partly because it is quite heavy - and since their recycling rates are measured by weight, this is a good way to boost tonnage, and meet targets. (Plastic, in contrast, is hugely bulky and very light.)

GLASS

Glass recycling hit record levels in 2005 - 1,272,000 tons. But this is only 50.8 per cent of the total amount of glass we use. So another 1.2m tons were dumped across the country.

Glass recycling now reduces carbon dioxide emissions by around200,000 tons each year in the UK, and UK glassmakers used a record 742,000 tons of recycled glass in 2005 (British-made bottles and jars now contain on average 35.5 per cent recycled glass).

Another 250,000 tons of glass from recycling collections were exported to Europe; and 280,000 tons were used in construction or roadmaking.

Low-value, crushed green glass (which cannot be mixed with clear or brown to make new clear glass bottles), or mixed glass is used in building or road materials, for filtration systems in swimming pools, and is even being trialled in place of sand for bunkers on golf courses.

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