When you think back to the days (only a year or so ago!) that we had to diligently separate all our recycling into different boxes, and woe betide you if you put something in the wrong box, or tried to recycle something that was not on the list – when you were likely to get the whole lot chucked back at you! – the one-bin policy is absolute bliss. So much more is recyclable, and you can even put out extra stuff if you have filled your bin, so no more trips to Elmbridge or to the cardboard bank with all the stuff that had mounted up at home.
But – how do Waverley do it? We investigated for a presentation to the Ewhurst Village Society last autumn and found that everything is bulked up and sent to their Southwark Materials Recovery facility. Here it’s all loaded onto a conveyor belt and sorted by means of machines, mainly. For instance, a huge magnet takes off steel cans, an eddy current makes aluminium ones jump off the belt, and jets of air blow the plastic items off. Disc screens sort things into different sizes and, then, anything that can’t be sorted mechanically is sorted by hand. Finally, the bits and pieces that can’t be recycled are left on the conveyor belt, travel to the end, and are taken away to be disposed with ordinary refuse.
Once it is all sorted, everything makes it way to a new home: paper goes to a papermill in Kent, and is made into new paper; glass is made into new glass bottles in Essex, cardboard into more cardboard. Aluminium cans are turned into more cans. Foil, food containers, steel cans and aerosols are made into more cans, paper clips and even parts for bicycles and cars.
Food waste is taken to two sites that use anaerobic digestion treatment. Disposing of food waste to landfill is no longer acceptable because of the damage it does to the environment and its contribution to climate change through methane and other gases escaping into the atmosphere. Increasingly it is prohibited by regulations and made expensive through the imposition of special landfill taxes. Food waste is a serious problem – some 18 million tonnes is produced in the UK every year, of which roughly 6 million tonnes has to be collected by local authorities.
In anaerobic digesters food waste breaks down into methane gas. All this methane gas is captured and super-efficient gas engines then use it to generate renewable electricity and heat– all that remains is a liquid fertiliser, rich in nutrients, which goes back onto the land to grow crops, substituting for fossil fuel derived fertilisers. During the process, no methane is released to the atmosphere.
Who would have guessed that rubbish could be so fascinating!