The first thing that hits you is the noise...
The first thing that hits you is the noise. And then the smell. A concentrated version of that odour you get from a plastic milk bottle that you forgot to rinse out. Thirty Civic Trust members joined the visit to Premier Waste Recycling Ltd, the site in south Leeds where the contents of around 300,000 Leeds green bins are sorted. Around 800 tonnes of recyclable waste from Leeds households arrive there, each and every week, alongside recyclable waste from a couple of other local authorities.
Our hosts Kim and Daiva showed us around the site, taking us through each stage of the process, from waste being unloaded from bin wagons, through to sorted materials being baled and taken away for further processing by other companies. We walked through each stage of the process.
After a wagon-load of material is unloaded, a member of staff does a visual inspection, to check for levels of “contamination”. This could be anything and everything, depending on what people have put in their green bins - with common contaminants including dirty nappies & food waste. There are two issues here – one is around it being labour-intensive to sort stuff that shouldn’t be there – and also that food waste & other materials contaminate other recyclable items, such as plastics, with the result that waste processors may refuse to take them – or at the very least pay a much lower price. If the level of contamination is too high, the whole load will be rejected – and will be diverted instead to the Recycling and Energy Recovery Facility (the RERF – aka the incinerator) in Cross Green.
They estimate that around 20% of potentially recyclable material is rejected because of contamination – a significant amount – which clearly has an impact on the city’s recycling rates. The materials then begin to wind their way around the site on a series of conveyor belts. As the waste passes along the conveyor belts, different materials are pulled out, mostly by mechanical means. At one stage much of the material passes through a Trommel – an enormous drum with holes of assorted sizes, which automatically sorts different materials.
Materials also pass over a magnet – pulling out the ferrous metals. But the sorting isn’t all done by machines. We entered a room with around a dozen people stood at two conveyor belts – hand-sorting materials passing by at speed. One conveyor belt had mostly metals, the other mostly plastics – and the job of the staff was to pull out materials that hadn’t been sorted correctly by other mechanical processes. Some stuff that had just made it onto the wrong conveyor belt – and other things that
should never have been in a green bin in the first place. And, eventually (although we didn’t see this part of the process), the sorted materials are baled – ready for sale to a range of different processors.
The market for recyclable materials is notoriously volatile – no more so than now, with all the talk of China no longer wanting our plastics. But we saw various materials ready for the next stage of their journey in the recycling process – be that to India (cardboard), Turkey (various materials), or Shotton (paper).
I found the whole experience fascinating, overwhelming, and if I’m honest, quite depressing. When you’re faced with the amount of stuff your city throws away (and remember this is just the recyclable waste), I think it’s hard to react in any other way. I was struck by the amount of materials that should never be in a green bin in the first place, and how dirty everything was (I’d just put out my green bin, with all it’s freshly washed plastics, that morning).
So whilst I’m glad that we’re clearly working hard to recycle what we can as a city, it reinforced for me that we need to be doing so much more further up the chain. Businesses need to reduce the amount of packaging they use for the things they sell to us. We need to go out of our way to buy things with less packaging (and, frankly, buy fewer things). Whilst recycling is clearly better than just throwing things away, it’s only part of the solution. We need a more radical rethink about what we all consume.
Rob Greenland is co-director of Leeds-based social enterprise Social Business Brokers CIC. Their Zero Waste Leeds project is exploring a range of ways to reduce waste in Leeds, by helping people to reuse, repair and recycle more.