Let me take you on an expedition to discover what happens to Barnet blue-bin recycling. Its first destination: Edmonton’s materials recovery facility [MRF] or recycling centre. You’re welcomed, given tea and coffee, kitted out in hi-viz waistcoats, helmets, gloves, goggles, amplifying receiver earpieces, and instructions forbidding you taking any photographs inside the hangar. Biffa are your hosts. They won the contract from North London Waste Authority to separate your (and my) rubbish.
Biffa is rightly proud of its technology to separate paper and card, glass and tin, aluminium and a variety of different plastics from the massive mounds of waste that are piled high over half the floorspace of the plant. Magnets, infrared sensors, air jets and enormous rotors and agitators are connected by long belts that move our waste up and across the distances of the vast hangar, and finally into huge, topless containers from which they are baled and loaded back onto trucks and shipped out.
Not replaceable by a machine
Does it sound high-tech and remarkable? It is. But it’s also an unremittingly physical old industrial process: filthy, noisy, and reliant at every turn on humans separating out unwanted items. The plant has 75 people on at any one time (it operates 24 hours a day – pickers work 11 hour shifts) wearing ear plugs and other protective gear, standing over the conveyor belts in single sex crews achieving 40 picks a minute on average.
We had a go. Immediately the sea sickness hit. Keep your head still! we were instructed through the earpiece. Just pick out the film. I couldn’t tell old plastic ‘film’ from old paper – after it’s been through all those conveyor belts, agitators and rollers, it looks the same: dusty, grey, ripped rags. Even our guide, Steve, admitted he can only manage half as many picks as the professionals: all Polish.
Rubbish or money?
“You see waste. We see money,” says Steve. For him this is a factory producing products. At great expense: a single infrared sensor (for separating the different plastics) costs ￡300,000. The plant runs on ceaseless torrents of electricity and human effort. The only concession to people’s wellbeing is the release of water spray from high in the piping to suppress the dust.
Most of the waste is lucrative. The cardboard is sold to China, and the other recyclates also make Biffa money. The residual waste – the rubbish left over after all the recyclates have been collected – is compressed for “energy from waste” fuel for incineration to generate electricity, and is sold at a loss. It is still preferable to being put into landfill, says Steve.
Separate collection (that could include textiles and plastic bags, shoes, batteries and electrical goods) would obviate the need for this entire plant. No materials recovery would be needed, and the waste would sell clean. No can do, says Steve. As far as he’s aware, no company has made money from separate collection. ‘A loss leader’ he calls it. May Gurny was taken over, and its separate collection services terminated. The increase in recyclates that comes from co-mingled waste, put through the MRF with all its costs in energy, staffing, noise and transport, is more lucrative… This is not what I had always been led to believe, and it is counter-intuitive. Steve says there is no definitive answer to which system is preferable.
So here’s an idea: lets not generate the waste in the first place. Leave all that packaging with the supermarket after you buy the product, and let them reuse it. Surely to goodness, it doesn’t take a genius to work that out – nothing on the scale of the brilliance that created the sensor to detect different polymers, for example.
Waste – Christmas alert!
Much time and effort is spent on separating out (mostly by human eye and hand) the 5% or so of unwanted material from Barnet’s waste: textiles and clothes, scrap metal notably biscuit tins, and worst of all: plastic bags.
Not only is plastic “film” (bags, wrapping and the like) surplus to requirements and enslaves scores of people to the tyranny of the conveyor belt, it also blows around the plant, gums up the machines, obscures the sensors and eventually sells at a loss. The more quickly we get rid of plastic bags the better. There, at last, is a piece of common ground between Steve and me.
What to do?
Barnet pays NLWA ￡1.3m a year to handle our blue bin waste. The recyclates are sold and the revenue is shared between Biffa, and the NLWA – who then also remits a proportion back to Barnet. The figures are still unknown.
But one thing’s for sure: lets put recyclates (and only those) in the blue bins. It will reduce the pressure on the workers, and lets start eliminating plastic bags from the waste stream. Maybe from our lives. How hard can it be?