What happens to our recycled rubbish?

Feature by Karen Liebreich MBE

A visit to Hounslow’s state of the art rubbish recycling plant

I told the family I had tickets for a very exciting day out. They were intrigued. When we arrived at Southall Lane Materials Handling Facility they were puzzled but quite pleased. Not every mother organises a trip to a waste depot as a special treat. The site opened last year to handle nearly all the London Borough of Hounslow’s recycling – plastic, food, paper, card, metal, glass, textiles and WEEE (Waste Electrical & Electronic Equipment) – in fact everything except the garden green waste. It had a controversial birth. Firstly large black wheely bins were distributed around the borough, to the dismay of many whose gardens were too small to house them easily. The contract with the borough’s existing waste contractors, Suez, was terminated. In October 2016 Hounslow officially transferred its recycling and waste services to its wholly-owned subsidiary company, Lampton Recycle 360 (other arms of which also deal with property development and parks maintenance).

After a multi-million pound budget overrun (from £11.5 to around £28 million) and delays in opening, the state of the art facility finally opened at the end of 2017. And while the overspend is eye-watering and regrettable (and only a small percentage can be put down to more stringent government legislation) it is undoubtedly a very impressive facility. And a Very Good Thing that our waste should be re-purposed and as little as possible end up as landfill.

Photographs – Jeremy Levy

A fire can be started by something as simple as a truck driving over a triple A battery

We were shown around by a proud and knowledgeable Dan Smyth, Operations Manager, with Cllr Guy Lambert (who has drawn the waste ticket in Hounslow’s new Cabinet) and David Ward, Managing Director of all the Lamptons, in attendance. Sadly we were not allowed to see the machinery in action, though Cllr Lambert has provided video clips for us of all the various processes. His cinematography is more Blair Witch Project handheld than Bunuel, but we are grateful nonetheless. The site was spotlessly clean when we visited, and though slightly less spotless on a workday as the clips show, still clean and organised and – as waste facilities go – relatively fragrant.

We entered through special fire doors. Dan Smyth told us that fire is an enormous problem – so much so that there is a fire every day in a waste facility somewhere in the UK. It can easily be set off by something as trivial as a truck driving over a triple A battery. Small fires are instantly extinguished; a larger fire can be contained by closing the special fire doors which seal completely, and filling the entire depot to a depth of a couple of metres. The fire once contained, the toxic water would then be containered away to be dealt with; in the past it would simply flow out into the Thames.  We were suitably impressed and as the special doors started bleeping urgently at our group we hastily moved along.

There were separate bays for each type of material. The purer the material, the higher the price that can be achieved. Sorting takes place at every level – in our houses, at the roadside, at the depot, at the final stage. My irritation at having to sort so much in my kitchen was somewhat assuaged at my pride in hearing that our council is now achieving some of the highest prices of any London council for its waste.

Karen Liebreich is a co-founder and director of Abundance London

Read more about Karen and about Abundance London

See our profile of Karen Liebreich here

Read a feature about the work of Abundance London here

Why it’s important to sort stuff out from the get-go

The recycling team has 23 seconds for each house. So the more you can sort at home, the quicker they can be, the better for them, and the better price we can get at the end. Rinsing out cans and containers helps, as much is sorted by hand. Dog food cans are particularly revolting for the sorters.

Paper

Paper fetches £45 per tonne. It is baled and sent to a factory in Germany. Any contaminant can reduce the price, though small amounts can be tolerated. Glitter is a particular bugbear. Plastic and foil also cause problems. Cardboard and paper have to be separated out, so if you can do that, so much the better. Shredded paper should be added in small quantities to your food waste, but not included in paper waste as the strands are too short and the recycled paper manufacturers don’t like them.

Glass

Do not include plate glass, light bulbs, ceramic, pyrex or perfume bottles, as these all have a different melting point.

Textiles

If these get wet, then they can infect the whole load, and the entire lot has to be rejected, so they should be wrapped in something waterproof.

Batteries

These are no longer collected. We were told to take them to Space Waye, but as that is a 16-mile round trip from Chiswick you better drop them off at your local supermarket or at Halfords.

Plastics

Plastic bags are a big bugbear; they get wrapped around the machinery and cause stoppages. No hard plastics, such as coat hangers, toys, flower pots.  Milk containers etc should be recycled with their lids off so they can be compressed easily. The container in the recycling van has a cunning lift feature which compacts the plastics immediately and pushes them up into the roof of the truck. This is the largest element by volume of all the recycling materials.

Because we’re worth it – the economics of recycling

After sorting into separate bays the rubbish is re-sorted. The plastic and metal are loaded onto a conveyor belt which passes beneath magnets and is hand-picked to remove plastic film. Aluminium passes through a magnetiser which gives it a magnetic field enabling it to be picked out by the machinery. (See video of aluminium ‘leaping like salmon’ as Guy poetically described it. The plastics are sold to a company in Telford for £160 per tonne. From there it is shipped to Indonesia for further sorting into some 45 different colours and types – Dan Smyth assures us that only adults, paid properly, with appropriate PPE are employed. The plastic is then washed, melted and re-chipped to be sold back to China for re-use as a raw material.

Black plastic trays can’t be recycled as plastic. The infrared can’t pick up the black colour, so they slip through. However they have a high calorific value, so can be added into the main rubbish and sent for incineration. Producers insist on using black trays for meat products, as the black hides the colour of the blood. Meanwhile ready meal trays are not recycleable (yet – but coming soon!) as they have a card base glued to a plastic lining. Likewise for tetrapaks.

Food waste

Each day they collect 28 tonnes. It goes to an anaerobic digester in East London and is turned into gas and compost.

Metal

The aluminium cans were the most valuable items, fetching £1200 per tonne in the UK. These were recycled into new cans.

Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment

Anything electrical up to the size of a small microwave can be recycled. It should be put with the rest of the recycling.

Wheely bin waste

The remaining waste was sent to be incinerated into energy, but at a cost of £100 per tonne.

So while profit – or even break even – remains a distant hope, at least our waste is going somewhere suitable and not just to landfill.

Karen Liebreich is a co-founder and director of Abundance London

Read more about Karen and about Abundance London

See our profile of Karen Liebreich here

Read a feature about the work of Abundance London here