The pressure is on to increase the amount of recycled waste and, whilst the UK is making great strides, there's a long way to go.
From its nadir ten years ago, when it only recycled 11.2 per cent of its waste, the UK's situation has gradually improved, driven by greater environmental awareness and ever tightening regulations to this year's zenith when 41.2 per cent of household waste was recycled.
Recycling is not a new development, in fact many would argue that it is returning to mankind's early days when everything was repaired or reused. It was because the greater affluence of the previous century, driven by the consumer and marketing revolution that has turned the global market into a disposable society, that waste has increased.
But despite the recent improvements there is a long way to go before the UK can even begin to imagine the 'zero-waste economy' that successive governments have been championing. Front and centre of that drive to reduce waste is the Waste Resources and Action Programme (WRAP). Established as a not-for-profit company in 2000, WRAP is backed by government funding from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Its stated mission is to help businesses and individuals reap the benefits of reducing waste, developing sustainable products and using resources in an efficient way.
In 2008, WRAP launched a three year business plan which set out ambitious headline targets to help reach the vision of a world without waste. These targets were to divert eight million tonnes of waste materials from landfill, save five million tonnes of CO2 equivalent emissions and generate £1.1bn of economic benefits to business, local authorities and consumers.
The work has focused on four priority areas: packaging, food waste, collections and quality of materials. Despite the economic recession, the appetite for cost saving and increased resource efficiency, as a way to drive leaner business, has been made clear.
At last month's annual conference, WRAP CEO Dr Liz Goodwin revealed that the organisation had met all its published major targets, having helped keep 11 million tonnes of waste out of landfill, avoid 5.5 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent emissions and generate £2bn of benefits to the UK economy, including £1.8bn of cost savings.
Goodwin explains that she is very proud of the contribution WRAP is making to help business and families find cost savings and identify growth opportunities for the UK economy, given the current severe financial pressures we all face. 'All the governments of the UK which fund our work have the goal of moving swiftly towards a zero-waste society. Their priority is to find ways of tackling waste – including food waste – and keep scarce resources in use for as long as possible.
'WRAP's work in supporting families and business in wasting less and recycling more is well known. Less well known is the ground-breaking research and technological innovation we have pioneered which supports the UK economy through major breakthroughs in resource efficiency that deliver cost savings.'
The process of recycling household waste begins at the individual level but there seems to be a great deal of confusion. Some local authorities collect all recycled waste in one collection – this is called co-mingled waste – while others split the waste in various streams at source supplying separate bins for paper, plastic, cans and glass.
According to a spokesperson for the Local Government Association the system of collection needs to be decided locally, dependent on the amount of space at properties to house different bins and the ability of the local Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) where the waste will be recycled to sort the waste.
J&B Recycling is a waste management company which has developed a modern and effective MRF serving mainly the north of England and southern Scotland. The plant, sited in Hartlepool, processes dry mixed recyclates collected in source-segregated, dual stream and fully co-mingled formats from nine Local Authorities and from commercial and industrial (C&I) clients. In addition, the MRF receives feedstock from as far south as Essex, via brokers.
The annual throughput of the MRF is currently around 55,000t per year, of which some 75 per cent is municipal and 25 per cent is C&I waste. Additional waste is also sorted at a second 'sister' plant nearby which specialises in processing mixed commercial, construction and demolition waste arisings, some of which act as feedstock for the MRF.
The company has built its materials recovery business on the basis of secure, guaranteed UK markets for all its material outputs, thus enabling the development of infrastructure and processes that focus on providing those products at the right quality levels for its many customers. In addition, this secure UK base has enabled the company to build export markets for a proportion of its outputs.
The unique feature of the MRF is its throughput of a wide range of plastics. The rigid plastic items delivered to many similar facilities in the UK comprise only milk containers and drinks bottles. By contrast, the J&B MRF targets – and recovers for recycling – all other common forms of plastic found in the household waste stream, including pots, tubs and trays, and plastic film.
Feedstock materials are tipped into distinct bays on receipt, depending on their source and collection method, both of which dictate the type and mix of recyclates present in each load. In this way, for instance, all co-mingled municipal materials may be processed in one shift and the plant process parameters, including throughput speeds and'manning levels, are adjusted at the start of the shift to suit this particular material mix. Process parameters for the following shift may then be altered to suit, say, dual stream or co-mingled C&I materials, thereby achieving maximum efficiency for the plant.
The MRF equipment includes a bag splitter, a 3-fraction trommel screen, a ballistic separator, magnets, eddy current separators, and one Titech optical separator. Manual picking is carried out at the pre-sort and quality control stages.
Following the up-stream separation of paper and film plastic in the trommel and the ballistic separator, and the removal of ferrous and aluminium containers by the magnets and eddy current devices, the remaining materials are largely rigid plastic items. The Titech optical device is set so that any non-plastic and black plastic items in this stream are separated from the valuable rigid plastic items. This latter 'mixed dense plastics' stream is made up of some 75 per cent containers and 25 per cent tubs and food trays.
Plastic film is a significant element of the output from the MRF. Although a proportion of this comes from the company's C&I feedstocks, about 75 per cent of the film is recovered at the municipal MRF during the manual pre-sort and also from the oversized fraction segregated by the trommel.
The film is then positively handpicked from this fraction, leaving the paper and cardboard to pass through, and is finally hand sorted into coloured (or 'jazz') and 'natural' films and carrier bags. Through this positive picking process, the quality of the recovered film is high, with any contaminated materials being left to go through with the residual waste.
All outputs from the MRF are baled for onward shipping. The outputs include segregated materials received from C&I customers, or from the local sister plant, which are fed directly into the MRF output line for baling.
Bales are visually checked for quality and are broken down and returned to the MRF feedstock if deemed to be deficient in any way. All bales are tagged to record the date and the baler operator and a final check is carried out at the time that the bale is loaded for shipment.
Mark Penny, commercial manager of J&B confirms that 'the customer is our ultimate quality checker. We therefore need to ensure that each member of our staff takes responsibility for his or her work so that the quality of our material is right before it leaves the premises'.
In addition to HDPE milk containers and PET drinks bottles, the mixed dense plastics output comprises items such as yoghurt pots, butter tubs and food trays. This output stream is supplied mainly to the Lincolnshire plastics recycling facility operated by ECO Plastics Ltd, who then sort it into component polymers – predominately HDPE (high-density polyethylene), PET (polyethylene terephthalate), PP (polypropylene), PS (polystyrene) and PVC (polyvinyl chloride) – for recycling into new plastic products. A proportion of the mixed dense plastics output is also exported.
Some 1,500t of marketable plastic (polythene) film are also recovered annually by J&B. The 'natural' film is sold in the UK and in export markets, while the 'jazz' film and carrier bags are solely exported.
Biffa Polymers operates a plastic recycling facility in Redcar, Teeside. Mixed post-consumer plastics come to the facility from Biffa's network of MRFs. Material from other companies is also currently being trialled at the plant. Dry mixed recyclables (DMR) are sorted into mixed plastics bales at the MRFs. These are then sorted at Biffa Polymers into the various polymer types.
'Neo-infra red and optical sorting technologies are used as well as metal separation/detection and shredding/granulation,' Martin Marron, managing director of Biffa Polymers, says. 'Metal and paper contaminates are removed, and the plastics are sorted into PE, PET, and PP into both jazz (colours) and natural, HIPS and heavies polymers (mix of residuals).'
Heavy polymers are the most difficult to recycle because of the high content of black PET. A lot of processes can't currently handle black PET. The sorting units at Biffa Polymers can separate mixed plastics – including PE (polyethylene), PP, PET and HIPS (high impact polystyrene sheets) – which arrive in bales. Once separated the plastic is granulated and cleaned to produce high quality clean plastic flakes. This valuable secondary raw material is converted into high quality compounds for use in manufacture of non-food items such as paint trays and plant pots – avoiding the need to use 'pure' virgin plastic.
Only a mild detergent is used, similar to what is used in your washing up bowl at home, as part of the wash process. No other chemicals are added. The plant is as energy efficient as possible. Cold water is used in the wash process which is re-circulated, and the latest technology with low-energy motors reduce energy consumption.
The plastics are sorted into polymer types and are processed to produce a flake. This goes to manufacturers of household consumables such as bins, storage boxes, plant pots, and paint trays.
Marron is keen to point out that the process is absolutely commercially viable. 'The plant was designed to be a commercial entity while providing environmental benefits in terms of recycling,' he says.
Recycle or re-use
Buying re-used items such as sofas and TVs rather than buying new items is saving UK households around £1bn a year and helping to create jobs – but this is just a fraction of the potential. One million sofas which the current owner has finished with are re-used in the UK every year, saving households over £320m – but this is just 17 per cent of the total number discarded each year. The environmental benefits of re-using one tonne of sofas are the same as recycling one tonne of plastics.
This trend for re-using items also creates jobs in organisations preparing items for a new life with a second owner. Research from WRAP shows the potential cost savings for businesses are also significant. Businesses are already saving £6m by reusing office chairs – but this only represents 14 per cent of all office chairs reaching the end of their life.
The research is the first of its kind to quantify the benefits of re-using everyday household and business items.
'The findings are staggering,' Goodwin says. 'Current levels of re-use create financial savings to households of around £1bn and reduce CO2 equivalent emissions by one million tonnes – the same as taking 300,000 cars off the road. But in terms of potential impact, this is clearly just the tip of the iceberg.
'The research shows a considerable amount of re-use already taking place in the UK – often through charity shops, online exchange and informally between friends and family. The benefits to household and business budgets could be even greater, for example, if there was greater confidence in the quality of re-used products. WRAP will be working to help address these issues.'
Currently, the 83 per cent of sofas not re-used are sent to landfill or for recycling. Doubling the number of sofas reused could save more than 52,000t of CO2 equivalent – the same as taking 17,000 cars off the road each year.
Another example of potential re-use given in the report is televisions. Less than one in seven are re-used each year. This means 16,000t of metals, glass and plastics that make up the 1.3 million televisions, which the current owner thinks have reached end of life, are being re-used. The remaining 87 per cent are either recycled or sent to landfill, whether or not they may still be in working order. At this present rate of re-use, UK households are saving £500m and the environmental equivalent of taking 50,000 cars off the road each year.
'Recycling is still crucial to ensure we maximise the value of materials, as not all items will be in a fit state for re-use, however, the research demonstrates the significant benefits of reuse to the economy and environment,' Goodwin adds. 'Before throwing something away or buying new it might be worth weighing up all of the options – what do we do with the item we no longer need? Could it go on to a second life with a new owner? Is it really sensible to dump these precious resources in landfill?' *