Exploring Where our Recyclable Waste Goes

Over the last few weeks I have been doing some work for a local recycling campaign called #LeedsByExample. The collaborative campaign, which was launched by Hubbub back in October in conjunction with Leeds City Council, it is backed by a number of major companies including Asda, Costa and Shell, and aims to boost on-the-go recycling rates in Leeds. Eating and drinking on the move appears to be increasing all the time yet less than 50% of local authorities in the UK provide suitable on-the-go recycling facilities. There is hope that the information gathered from this campaign will help inform policy making and see new recycling initiatives put in place across the UK.

As someone who considers themselves to be an environmental activist I was keen to get involved, especially when it came to the eye-opening task of sorting and collecting data from some of the waste taken from the campaign's designated recycling bins. As part of our visit to one of the local recycling facilities in Leeds, we were very kindly given a site tour. Witnessing and understanding what happens to our recyclable waste, often just thrown in the bin and immediately forgotten about, was as fascinating as it was humbling. Even though I like to think I'm extremely conscious of our household waste and what we consume when out and about, the experience certainly made an impact on the way I consider what we throw away. I came away thinking everyone should visit a recycling or waste management facility at least once in their lifetime. Disposal of the large amount of waste we create as a society is key to supporting our cities and communities, yet I feel it is a part of modern life we often forget about. It is far too easy to throw something in the nearest bin and walk away, it's an area in which I think we could all do with a little wake up call.

The H W Martin materials recycling facility in Leeds was built to process and sort mixed, dry recyclable material from kerbside recycling collection and businesses and output materials suitable for entering the manufacturing process once more. The facility turns over 200 tonnes of waste a day with new deliveries arriving constantly. The material is unloaded into gigantic piles of waste before entering a rigorous sorting process involving both technological and manual separation procedures.

After the waste is unloaded, the large pile of material is gradually sifted through onto the conveyor belts, which take it all the way around the site. Initially the waste stream enters a large drum where the material is sorted according to size. The material also passes near a magnet to pull out magnetic waste. Manual sorting then gets rid of large recyclable items which weren't filtered corectly in the drum and other items which should never have even entered a recycling bin. Here, these items are picked out from the fast conveyor belts at speed and thrown down designated shoots where they will be collected once the associated space is full. Following separation, each material is baled ready to sell on to processors. We were actually working next to a large can compactor, that does occasionally explode apparently. This machine crushes material to make large cubic bales of crushed cans and tins, which were subsequently pushed out of the machine and carried away by large JCB trucks.

Staff informed us that keeping contamination to a minimum is absolutely key to making sure the site runs smoothly, if one load is contaminated and is mixed with the rest, they will be unable to recycle anything that the load has touched. Bin wagons are often checked for excessive contamination on entry, recyling contaminated waste is often too costly and requires much more energy and processing power. They estimate around 20% of the waste they receive is too contaminated to recycle and as such is rejected and sent to the Recycling and Energy Recovery Facility (RERF) in Leeds where the waste, alongside black bin waste, is sorted to try extract any recyclable material before the remainder is incinerated. I was intrigued to learn that the main cause of contamination in recycling bins is not just food waste, but is also largely due to nappies and clothing. Yet another reason to ditch the disposable nappies, not only are 3 billion of them sent to landfill/incinerator every year in the UK, but if they are incorrectly disposed of they can contaminate not only the whole recycling bin but the whole truck load of recyclable material!

Working in the recycling facility for a few hours was quite the eye-opening experience. It was loud and smelly and obviously rather dirty, we were dealing with waste after all. There was something really grounding about coming face to face with the large amount of waste we, as a city, throw away. It was also hard to believe that this was just the recyclable waste!

The majority of the time, myself included, people, businesses and big corporations don't think about where their waste is going to end up. There is little thought given to our rubbish once we have finished selling it, buying it or using it. Change is everyone's responsibility, businesses need to be more responsible about where their waste ends up, brands need to reduce the amount of packaging on their products and consumers need to become more conscious of what they are consuming. Awareness needs to be raised about what we can and can't put into our recycling bins and education needs to be more widespread on the issue of contamination.

I found the visit truly fascinating and the major thing I took home with me was the sheer importance of the phrase 'Reduce, Reuse, Recycle'. As a society we all need to start viewing the things we consume in this way, recycling will always help reduce our impact but it is not the solution. We need to become more mindful of our actions and the consequences they have on the planet, which includes evaluating how much waste we produce and where it ends up.

I'm excited to see the end results of the #LeedsByExample campaign and how it can improve recycling rates across both Leeds, and eventually, the UK. If you want to find out more about the campaign check out Hubbub's website and the #LeedsByExample hashtag on social media.

Thanks for reading.


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