Today I spent the whole day at our city’s refuse and recycling centres, so I could understand in detail the daily challenges we have with our city’s waste. It’s another of my long reads but I hope you’ll find it interesting!
Last year the three MP’s for Brighton and Hove took part in an event for young people and they challenged us to work harder to improve recycling. It’s a challenge we’ve taken to heart as we’ve stayed in close touch, met in parliament to discuss it, and today made a series of visits.
First stop was the Hollingdean recycling centre. It was totally mind-blowing! It’s a bit like factories are in cartoons with big machines joined up by conveyer belts that whizz above and below you.
There’s one machine that resembles a ginormous tumble dryer. Into one end stuff is poured and then tumbled around as the goods filter down through different sized holes, where they fall onto various conveyer belts that take the items to different places.
At one point a conveyer belt ends but above it is an extremely powerful magnet, so paper plunges down to the next level whilst cans magically leap up into the air, landing on another belt.
13 people are on duty each day simply to pluck out the things we put into the recycling that don’t belong there. Things like carrier bags and plastics that aren’t yet recyclable are plucked out. Last week, to their amazement, an electric guitar rattled its way up a conveyer belt to be greeted by astonished refuse workers!
While we’re on the subject of things that don’t belong there, batteries are a huge, HUGE problem in these places. I honestly didn’t realise just how bad it is when you put them into the general waste or recycling. There’s been six fires at the Hollingdean site this year alone, simply because a battery combusted going through the process here.
At the other end of the hall are these huge blocks all neatly bound by wire. Some made of paper, others plastic or aluminium. They’re sent off to customers to be transformed into something new, job done!
We spend a lot of time discussing the plastics that aren’t being recycled. It’s a lot more complex that I’d realised. Some of us have been told that the issue lies with the long contract we have with Violia, but that’s not the problem (something told me by council officials and others, not just the Viola staff!).
The biggest problem is that some packaging companies and retailers are using materials that are technically recyclable, but in practice, there’s no use for the product once it’s been repurposed. Therefore even if we did collect it and prepare it and shred it and everything else, there’s simply no company out there willing to take it and use the material in a new product.
We always think of recycling as the process of collecting and separating and preparing used materials, but the most important thing is having a destination for the harvested materials. Right now, too many of the products we buy have ‘recyclable’ on the packaging, but in practice there’s no use for it therefore recycling facilities don’t process it.
It blows my mind that packaging companies and supermarkets aren’t linked in with other sectors that have demand for repurposed materials, to ensure that the chain from development to retain is actually joined up with recycling and reusage.
The other massive problem is that government have passed the Environment Bill which changes the requirements for recycling but they haven’t yet issued the new regulatory guidelines for what local authorities must collect, recycle and other standards that need meeting. This means if we invest heavily in upgrading our facilities, then in six months the Government could issue regulations that require a different standard or service and it will all be wasted. The Government is years late in issuing these regulations and local authorities all over the country are holding back on upgrades until it’s issued. It’s madness, government must get on with it. Previously issues like this were dealt with by the EU and everyone knew what the future held in terms of standards and requirements, but now we’ve left and government haven’t filled the void and our environment suffers for it.
Next we went to the Woodlands centre, the other side of Lewes. Here all the green and food waste is brought and turned into compost. The scale is huge. Big lorries bring the garden and food waste in and it’s shredded and pushed into an enormous pile. Then it goes into one of eight huge tunnels where it’s heated up to 60 degrees for eight days, then removed into an open space for another two weeks. Soon after that it’s ready to be used as fertiliser, amazing! Local farmers come and collect it and it’s also sold in bags for use in gardens.
I know what you’re thinking…why can’t we have food waste collected in Brighton and Hove. We talked about this a lot and the reason is mostly as I’ve described above – we need to know what the law will require in terms of food waste before the council and Violia will invest the millions needed to make this happen.
To give you just one example of what’s at stake – collecting food waste will require new refuse trucks because the current ones can’t deal with food waste as it would simply leak out onto the road…yuk! It takes two year to order a new refuse truck. If we order them and government releases it’s regulations that include a certain type of truck or capacity of truck and it’s different to ordered then the city will have made a very costly mistake. So we wait.
A lot of planning is going in to how food waste collection could work in practice and of course it will be different in different parts of town because of the layout of homes, but a lot of work is happening to prepare for this and make it a reality.
Next we travelled to Newhaven to the power plant that runs on rubbish! We have low rates of recycling in our city, but that doesn’t mean we send a lot to landfill. In fact only 0.9% of our city’s waste goes to landfill. Everything else that can’t be recycled goes to Newhaven where it’s put into a stupendously big concrete pit and mixed up. Then this huge claw descends, grabs a pile of rubbish and move it to the system which allows it to heat up and finally combust, heating the space to 1,000 degrees which heats water that drives a turbine.
It’s quite remarkable because no gas is used to drive the incinerator (except to initially light it which only happens every 18 months), it’s fouled only by rubbish. No noxious fumes are emitted, but CO2 obviously is sadly, but all of the output from it is used. The main by product is a gravel that’s used to build and maintain roads and there’s enough electricity produced to power 25,000 homes.
I’ve posted a video of the first part of this process that I took today. When you watch it bear in mind that the claw you see is clutching 4 tonnes of rubbish…it’s huge!
I asked about changing consumer patterns and it’s impact. I was told that up until 15 years ago they had big problems with video tapes breaking open and clogging up the machinery. Today that only happens at jubilees when people put their bunting in the recycling! But instead there’s a massive increase in cardboard boxes because of online shopping. Things are changing and we need to keep up.
As I walked home this evening, I walked passed the recycling bins in my street. I’ll never look at them the same again! I’ve always been a very passionate recycler but I’m going to be much, much more careful about sorting from now on. I’ll be super-careful never to put batteries in the recycling, (any supermarket will recycle them).
Please make sure you recycle everything you can though. It was so sad seeing the incinerator pike contain so many plastic bottles. They were there because people couldn’t be bothered to put them in the recycling bins. The less plastic that we burn – even though the noxious fumes are removed – gives more space for us to burn the products that are truly unrecyclable.
If you promise to be more assiduous with your recycling, I’ll promise to continue my journey to work alongside our local council and refuse sector to make sure government give us the regulations and investment we need to collect, sort, recycle and sell-on more of our waste products and lessen the impact that waste has on our environment.
September 19th marks the start of recycling week…lets all use that as a chance to be better with our waste!