The recycling front line of Norfolk
PUBLISHED: 14:07 16 April 2018
Angela Sharpe Photography 2018
For most of us, filling the recycling bin is an easy way to do our bit for the environment - but are we all helping as much as we think we are?
Sitting in the office of Norfolk’s Material Recovery Facility (MRF), the view from the huge glass windows is a timely reminder of old habits. It is a rising hill, now covered in grass, with birds swooping and rabbits darting about, once a major landfill site filled with everyone’s rubbish, left to rot and decay in the ground.
Today everyone in Norfolk has a recycling bin and while not all are converts to the importance of trying to reduce our environmental footprint, most of us like to think this is one small tangible thing we can do to help.
But how many of us really know what happens to our plastic milk cartons, cereal boxes and wine bottles after they are collected – and more importantly, are some of us doing more harm than good by trying to recycle the wrong things?
Around 350 tonnes of recycling arrives every day at the MRF run by the Norfolk Waste Partnership.
A relentless stream of household waste is dumped in the cavernous tipping hall from the back of the collection trucks, before it is meticulously sorted, then rolled off the other end ready to be transformed into something new.
Enormous bales of paper, aluminium, plastics and steel are then reloaded ready to travel back out of Costessey to production plants, locally, nationally, across Europe and Asia.
It is an extraordinary operation and with all seven district and borough councils owning a percentage of the company, its efficiency and ability to get a good price for what it produces could directly benefit council tax payers.
Every recycling collection in Norfolk comes here, and says contracts manager Steve Jenkins, it is key to find the right balance between making it easy for householders while still being able to create a good product for resale at the end.
“The specification for what people can put in their bins is probably the most comprehensive in the UK to enable as much household waste to be recycled as possible. But it still enables us to get a good price for the bundles of paper, metal and plastics we produce.”
He says that while most people are keen to do their bit and recycle as much as possible, there are those who still need reminding of not just what they can recycle, but why they should recycle.
“For some people, they are not deliberately putting the wrong things in their recycling bin, it is just a genuine mistake, but there are others who still have no interest in recycling and believe it isn’t their job to sort their rubbish
“We get car axles, parts of outdoor plastic play equipment, bits of bikes, we’ve even had live ammunition and a Samurai sword. They might be metal or plastic, but they are not for recycling. Not only can they be extraordinarily dangerous to our staff, they can damage our ability to sell on the raw material at the end due to contamination and can damage machinery. Some car brake disks got through and it shut us down for three days.”
Paula Boyce, NWP principal communications officer, says another huge issue is nappies – something which has recently been the subject of a major campaign targeting households, health, family and community groups and support agencies.
A survey estimated that around 400,000 used and dirty disposable nappies were ending up in Norfolk’s recycling bins every year.
“We do understand there will be many genuine reasons why people put nappies incorrectly in their recycling bin; having a baby is one of the most hectic times of life. But it is a huge issue for us. It contaminates otherwise clean recycling, is hazardous to staff and can really impact on our ability to get the best price for our paper bales. Maintaining a relationship with the Chinese market in recent months has been extremely difficult due to changes made by its government but we have managed to keep those clients thanks to the hard work of the team here and the high grade of paper we get. So when the Chinese inspectors are here, doing spot checks on the quality of the bales, if part of just one nappy gets through, that could very well be that,” she says.
On the deafening factory floor, the racing conveyor belts bump and shake, laden with waste.
Around 45 tonnes an hour thunders straight from the tipping hall on to the first conveyor belt where the team sift out anything which shouldn’t be there – within just a few minutes a coat, a rug, endless plastic bags, a cushion, a duvet, a boot and scrap metal are just a few of the things needing to be removed by the eagle-eyed team.
That says Steve, demonstrates the need to combine both the latest technology with the skills of the employees to make sure nothing gets through which will be a contaminant or damage the machinery.
“The aim is to have as little unrecyclable material left as possible and the best possible materials to be able sell on with a minimum of contamination.
“We aim to run at 90% efficiency. When the day shift goes home, a team comes in for a full eight hours to clean the machinery and remove all the debris which shouldn’t be there.”
As the waste goes through the plant it passes through a range of processes, gradually removing all the recyclable elements. One machine jolts and bumps along, sending glass one way and large pieces of cardboard another, while giant magnets separate steel and aluminium. Optical recognition and infra-red technology is also used to identify different materials, with computer-controlled blasts of air shot at the different types of waste as it goes by to push it in the right direction. The plastics also go through a further hand-sorting process, with workers separating the highly valuable HDPE (high-density polyethylene) and the PET (polyethylene terephthalate), with the rest left to be sold on as mixed plastic bales.
In the coming years, recycling plants like Costessey will have to adapt to changing global markets – the Chinese government is already limiting the material it imports to be used in its manufacturing.
“One of our key initiatives for the next year, in light of what is happening in China, is to try and grow our own industry here in Norfolk which uses the recyclable materials that we produce,” says Paula. “Not only will it benefit the environment, it will encourage new business, creates new jobs and brings new skills.”
When it comes to recycling - we do pretty well in Norfolk
- The latest figures for the year ending March 2017 show that residents recycle 46.7% of their waste, which means the county is on track to reach the Government’s 2020 recycling target of 50%. But, we can all definitely do more – whether it’s what we recycle or how we do it.
- Do not bag your recycling. Plastic bags are not recyclable, but even if what is in them is, it won’t be recycled as there is no time to open them on the sorting line. A trial carried out at the centre to open the bags, found that less than 30% of what they found in them was potentially recyclable. A lot of they found was actually harmful.
- Do not package your recycling within itself. Putting bottles and tins within a box and stuffing the nooks and crannies with paper might save space in your bin, but it will all get crushed together and can’t always be easily separated, either by hand or by technology.
- Keep the lids on your milk cartons or plastic bottles – the facility uses optical recognition technology and if the lids are on, they are more likely to have kept their shape and be more easily identified as the highly valuable different polymer types of HDPE and PET. The advice is to also keep lids, plastic or metal, on glass jars or bottles.
- Cardboard food boxes and trays are recyclable, but not if they have food on them. Pizza boxes with grease on them, boxes with bits of food stuck on the inside or used paper plates with food stains cannot be recycled.
- Keeping the recycling dry is essential so keep the lid down on your bin – a high moisture content in the card and paper hugely effects the quality and its value. This also applies to leaving large pieces of cardboard out by your bin for collection. It can be collected and recycled, but not if it is wet.
- Plastic food trays, yogurt pots, margarine tubs and clear punnets for fruit and vegetables are all completely recyclable. Just remember to remove any plastic film cover, bits of bubble wrap and food traces and the same for Tetra Pak and foil containers, the sort your takeaway might come in.
- Look beyond the kitchen. Rinsed-out bubble bath, shower gel and shampoo bottles, empty moisturiser jars and cosmetics containers are great to recycle. Even aerosols - but they MUST be empty.
- The recycling centre loves paper – the glossier the better - so put that endless junk mail to good use by putting it straight in your recycling bin. However, kitchen roll, toilet roll and tissues, whether clean or used, cannot.