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Most people go to a lot of effort to separate their waste. There are blue bins, green bins, brown bins... sometimes more! So why all of the effort? And what happens to it after it is collected from your kerbside?
A lot of people think that most non-recyclable waste i.e., the stuff that goes in your general waste or residual bin, goes to landfill and that the recyclable waste is shipped off to a foreign country. But actually, if you live in the North East of England where we operate, the general household waste that you put in your general waste bin will be sent to Energy from Waste facilities (EfW), such as those on Teesside.
So, what is better (or less bad) for the environment? Well, if you live in the North East of England, it’s good to know that our process of incinerating general waste to produce electricity is considered to be a better option than landfill. In simple terms the incineration of waste produces steam that powers a turbine to generate electricity that is fed into the national grid. In some cases, the heat is used in heat water in local heating schemes for businesses or households, so effectively recovering the energy from the waste.
When waste is disposed of in landfills it decomposes and creates methane, a type of greenhouse gas which is far more potent than carbon dioxide. In some landfills Methane leaves the landfill and goes into the atmosphere contributing to global warming. However, it must be stressed that a lot of landfills in the UK have gas engines in place that capture the methane to drive turbines that produce electricity for the national grid too.
In terms of recycling, despite what we hear about in the media, the majority of recyclable waste is recycled in the UK, although some is still exported to other countries to be processed. This is because recyclables are global commodities and different countries have varying demands, needs and markets for such for manufacturing products.
Hi-tech, well managed, well-regulated recycling facilities aren’t just confined to the UK though! That’s not to say waste crime doesn’t happen, fly tipping occurs here in the UK, sometimes on a large scale at organised level. The waste portrayed by the media dumped in Turkey and Malaysia didn’t get there themselves, but that is a whole different topic for discussion around improved regulation that we will save for another day. For the time being, we know if you live in the North East of England your domestic general and recyclable waste isn’t being dumped or ending up on the shores and rivers of some foreign land.
In the great scheme of things, you are far better recycling your waste wherever possible, so that is can be turned into something new. Or better still, reuse whatever you can in their original form. Or even better still, just don’t use it in the first place. A little more on this later!
In terms of recycling, there are three main types of recycling: primary, secondary, and tertiary. Primary recycling, also known as closed loop recycling, is the process of turning one thing into more of the same thing, like turning a plastic milk bottle into more plastic milk bottles. Secondary recycling means turning something into other things made of the same material such as turning aluminium metal cans into car parts. Tertiary or chemical recycling, on the other hand, requires breaking materials down chemically to produce something different, such as the pyrolysis of plastic to produce oils used in a variety of applications such as making virgin PET plastic
The waste that you put into your recycling bin is mainly sent for primary and secondary recycling. When collected from your kerbside, the mixed recyclables are all brought to a sorting plant.
Here at J&B our sorting plant is sophisticated, highly mechanised and designed to efficiently produce high quality outputs of sorted materials. At the plant, the material passes through a series of machines, where sources of contamination are removed e.g., organic matter, nappies… etc. The process also separates all of the different materials into types of product. This involves a series of machines, that each identify and separate different types of material by size, shape and type, using screens, magnets, eddy current separators, infra-red beams and jets of air. A team of people then do a final quality check to ensure the material is where it should be, and remove any contamination missed by the machines.
Once the waste has been separated into single materials some are made into large blocks called bales. These bales are then sold to companies who can recycle the material to be used instead of virgin materials in a variety of manufacturing processes. Other materials such as glass don’t need baling and are sent in large trucks to plants to be melted to be used in production of glass products.
The more you are able to separate and clean your recyclable waste at home the better! Machines aren’t able to identify and separate the materials when they are all joined together. For example, if you left polystyrene inside a cardboard box and put it in the bin then they would be squashed by the bin wagon and the machines at the sorting would not be able to separate the two.
There also some items which are deliberately made of different types of materials such as beverage cartons, like Tetrapak, which is called composite packaging as is made of paper, plastic and aluminium all fused together. Fortunately, beverage cartons can be recovered at some sorting plants, such as ours, as a separate output, and sent to a specialist mill for recycling. If they aren’t separated as “cartons” form the kerbside they would most likely end up in the paper or cardboard streams, where they would be considered to be contamination, or in the residual waste produced by the sorting plant.
So, you need to bear in mind that not all recycling plants are able to accept the same types of waste, so you should always check your local authorities’ website to see what you can include in your recycling bin.
Hopefully you have a slightly better understanding of the how the recycling process works in relation to your household recycling, but we have one last point, which we alluded to earlier… Whilst recycling is the better option of getting rid of waste, the best option for the environment is not to create waste in the first place.
As individuals, reuse what you can. If you like to grab a drive through coffee from the many Costa and Starbucks popping up all over the country, take your own cup (they all sell them). Don’t get a paper cup and throw it away every time! Swap or buy second hand where possible – kids toys are an obvious example.
And for businesses that create products for consumers, think about the products you are creating and the packaging they are contained in. Does it need packaging? Does it need a container inside another container? Can you reduce of remove the packaging completely? Also, it’s all fair and well using a material that says it can be recycled, but does your company have an understanding of the recycling process, and can your product and it’s packaging actually be recycled easily in real world situations without specialist schemes to do so?
The waste management system is complex. But if we all work together, we can genuinely make a huge difference to the sustainability and future of our planet.