Recycling – How Green Are You?

by David Broad

I have always wondered what happens to those waste bags that are so noisily collected at 6 am; and thanking my lucky stars I live in Hammersmith and don’t have to sort everything into six different waste categories as I would have to in some other boroughs.

How is it we can get away with only having to sort our waste into just two categories, “black bag” and “recycling”? Well, the answer lies south of us, in Wandsworth, at Smugglers Way Materials & Recycling Facility (MRF), one of the UK’s most advanced recycling centres.

And so it was a few weeks ago that a party of curious BRA members paid a visit to see exactly what goes on down there. The first thing to say is how immense and impressive the facility is. But then it has to deal with the waste bags from nearly a million residents, not only in Hammersmith & Fulham but Lambeth, Wandsworth and Kensington & Chelsea as well. This amounts to around 300 tonnes of recycling – the equivalent of 40 double decker buses – each day.

Another key point about this facility is it puts an end to the old practice of disposing of waste in landfill, the least best solution in terms of environmental impact. The emphasis now is in on generating energy from waste and extracting the maximum value through recycling and reuse.

But back to my bags. The lorries tip the black ones into chutes, to be compacted into containers before being loaded onto barges for a trip down the Thames to the Belvedere incinerator in Bexley. Here the heat from the burnt waste is used to generate electricity. What happens to the clear recycling bags is much more interesting.

The contents of these bags don’t so much get recycled by the MRF as sorted. They are dropped into the first sorting area, where a picker – a bit like the claw game found in amusement arcades – splits open the bags too release the materials. This travels on a series of conveyor belts passing through a variety of screens, optical sorters and high-tech magnets which separate out cardboard, newspapers, mixed papers, plastic bottles, tubs, cans, glass and smaller items.

The cardboard and paper products are baled or loaded loose into road bulkers. Cans are magnetically taken out, plastic bottles, pots, tubs and trays go through optical sorters which can sort material into different chemical types and colours. Glass goes through a large rotating drum with holes that separates the smaller items that should not be with the glass.

 All this material can be recycled into many different products. Paper is made into newspapers. Glass bottles and jars are crushed into fine sand for use in paving and road surfacing. Plastic bottles can be made into planter pots. Steel cans become cans once again. Green waste is sent for composting. As well as sorting out material for recycling, Smugglers Way also repairs and reconditions used items like furniture and electrical appliances for reselling.

They do this through REWORK, a reuse workshop scheme that supports young people who are on job seekers allowance by giving them training, experience and practical skills to make them ready for the workplace. Some final facts about recycling. . . .

  1. Make sure you clean or rinse food from plastic trays, cans, bottles, etc before putting them into your recycling bags.
  2. Don’t put shredded paper into recycling bags. The machines can’t deal with it. Compost it.
  3. You don’t need to wash labels off bottles or remove windows from envelopes. Their machines can deal with it.
  4. You can put all kinds of plastic like yoghurt containers, food trays, butter tubs, etc into recycling bags BUT NOT plastic film and bottle tops and lids. They must go into your black bags.

Roy Instrall and Lesley Gates, our  main contacts at the Council for  rubbish collection and street cleaning , arranged the visit for us . Over the past 6 months we have been discussing with them four or five ideas for improving current practice. We expect these to go forward – once the new Council administration has settled in .

Our plan is to provide a leaflet in September to guide the annual influx of new residents, many from outside London, while reminding the rest of us of ‘good practice’.   The staff at the MRF Visitor Centre are rightly proud of what is done there. They have a good set-up to take school parties round.  Well worth a visit, with stunning views of the Thames thrown in!