Sunday, 6 April 2008

Great Recycling Myths

I went to a ‘conference’ about rubbish/recycling/composting in Cornwall last Friday.

The first thing to note was that there was an enthusiastically high level of apathy!

The second thing was that the County Council Officer who was running it was patronising, bland, anodyne and not very well informed!

The third thing was that the content of the seminar was aimed at encouraging all the people who were not there. The people who were there were already up to speed.

One thing that I did learn was that most of the waste collected in Cornwall for recycling is sent to a MRF (known as a ‘murf’ and short for Mechanical Recycling Facility), rather than being separated by the householder. And this is the bit I am very unhappy with.

Where MRF’s are used for separating the recyclables, the local authorities are inclined to say ‘send us all your plastics, glass and cans’, which means that the householder thinks they are doing a wonderful job with very little effort.

Recyclables which are separated by mechanical means do not generally get separated into different types of plastic. These plastics are baled up and sent to a specialist contractor (who may be in China or India) where a certain amount of hand separation may be carried out – often by children – and a percentage is recycled, while a percentage (often large) is sent to someone else’s landfill, where it decomposes over many years producing methane in the process; and methane is more damaging than CO2 by a factor of 20.

Mechanical separation is liable to produce a high level of contamination, for example, paper contaminated by bits of glass making it unusable, so it has to go to landfill.

I cannot disagree with the principle that large quantities of waste will need some mechanical means of separation, but with the right machinery, and, importantly, the right level of co-operation from the householder, a much better and more honest conversion rate can be achieved.

My own local authority asks the householder to separate recyclables thus:
White paper (including newsprint etc.)
Coloured paper and cardboard (including yellow pages)
Glass jars and bottles (rinsed and with tops removed)
Cans, aluminium foil, plastic bottles (tops removed), aerosols (tops removed)

The fourth category is mechanically separated at the recycling centre (but not shredded). The amount of material collected for recycling, and then not recycled is no more than 2%.

My authority does not kid us that they can recycle products which they clearly cannot (such as yoghurt pots, plastic bottle tops, margarine tubs, tetrapaks etc.) so when we are told how many tonnes we have recycled in a month, we are being told the truth.

Although the percentages differ from one MRF to another, the amount of material eventually recycled can be as low as 20% of the total which the residents believe that they are recycling.

I fancy that the main problem to address in the recycling of domestic waste is to close the gap between what we are told is recycled and what is actually recycled (without, of course, adding to China’s pollution problem).

In other words, it’s time that both we and the local authorities stopped kidding ourselves and started accepting the truth!

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