Once upon a time when rubbish was rubbish, life was simple. You bought stuff and whatever you didn’t consume in some fashion, you threw in the bin. The Council sent it to landfill or to the incinerator. There was nothing more to know.
That was then and this is now. Today, our rubbish has become a thing. A topic for conversation: “What can I recycle in which bin? I’m totally confused”. “Recycling is a load of rubbish, I bet they just chuck it all in the incinerator anyway”. “Someone told me that it still goes to landfill, so why do we bother?” Good question…
If you want the answer – and if you happen to be in London, just take a 20 minute tube ride from Tottenham Ct Rd to Bromley by Bow. You’re now in Olympic Park territory. Anish Kapoor’s bright red Orbit Helter Skelter sticks up above the trees, you pass a futuristic looking school with exciting murals emblazoned on the walls. You realise that you don’t actually know much about Bromley by Bow.
This is about as far from rubbish as you can get. Except that it isn’t. Proceed through a leafy glade and you find yourself right next to a massive gleaming light grey aircraft hangar. Except that it isn’t. This is a common-or-garden rubbish dump. Except that there are no smells? No smells at all, in fact. And no noise.
You have arrived at Bywaters’ state-of-the-art Materials Recovery Facility (MRF). This is also where the larger-than-life, affable David Rumble, Strategic Development Manager, can’t wait to answer any rubbish question anyone cares to throw at him.
In a top floor executive conference room-with-a-view, sipping a cup of good coffee or fragrant tea, to wash down an individually wrapped posh biscuit, we unravel the mysteries of today’s rubbish recycling challenge. This is where we get introduced to the world of optical separators, magnets and reverse magnets, or Eddy current as we’ll soon nonchalantly refer to it. Or maybe not. We become familiar with the hand-pick-cabin, the silos, the bunkers and the balers.
According to Dave, if we throw enough money at it, we can recycle anything. It’s all down to how much we are prepared to pay in council tax.
Steel toe-capped boots and hard hats on, glowing in our hi vis vests, it’s time to tour the facilities. Back outside in the sun, birds are twittering and the grass is dotted with wildflowers. We open an innocent looking side door to the hangar and are instantly blasted with a roaring cacophony of clanking and whirring of such intensity that you have to shout to hear yourself. Adjusting to the dim fluorescent lights, we venture in to a cavernous Tardis, a cross between the set from Ridley Scott’s Alien and Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times.
Rows of massive clanking steel rollers bounce cardboard boxes uphill in a furious stream, while piles of putrid detritus whisk swiftly by on fast moving conveyer belts.
Peer into the eerily muted hand-pick-cabin where an army of hands work in a blur. Masked faces locked in intense concentration, armoured gloves protecting the pickers’ hands from hypodermics and other unwelcome sharps.
Down on the main line, next to the massive fast-spinning and grinding steel corkscrew rollers, their colleagues all wear GPS belts, programmed to stop the menacingly mulching machinery, should anyone happen to misstep. Not a pretty thought. The fatality rate in the recycling sector is around 10 times the average.
On the upside, David Rumble proclaims with significant satisfaction, that the big Bywaters hangar in Bromley by Bow is no less than the greenest Waste Recycling Plant on Planet Earth. That’s what they say and no one has so far challenged them! 4000 solar panels on the roof produce 1 megawatt of power, supplying the national grid and powering the plant in the process. Now, that’s recycling!
10 things you didn’t know about your rubbish:
1. Infrared technology is used to sort various bits of rubbish. Black plastic does not reflect light, so infrared cameras can’t see it. So not recyclable. Black bin liners or black food trays are also out. A stylish pale grey has been found to be the best colour for infrared detection.
2. Constantly evolving technology means that what was not recyclable last year, is ok this year. Film plastic bags and cling wrap is now fine, but clear is better than coloured, so don’t get trendy with your plastic bags.
3. Batteries have a nasty habit of spontaneously combusting for no reason, so do not put them in your rubbish!! All supermarkets now have special bins for batteries. Recycling plants are so petrified about fire that they’re not content with your average sprinkler system, no, they use water canon that deluge everything at the slightest whiff of a flame. This is a problem in itself, as all the dry rubbish is now ruined and has to be dealt with completely differently. So no batteries in the rubbish!! pleads Dave.
4. Takeaway coffee cups that are half plastic, half card, are a no-no. Same with Tetrapak. Yes, they can be recycled, unfortunately at a cost that sends recycling plants bust.
5. You can throw your empty Chardonnay bottle in the recycling, but it gets smashed up in the process and ends up as aggregate for the construction industry, not as a new bottle. “Next time you travel along the road, chances are that you’ll have someone’s beer bottle underneath you” says Dave. You want a new bottle? Take it to the bottle bank instead. But do leave the aluminium cap and collar on. The bottle is put into a flotation tank, the glass sinks, the caps and collars float and the recycling people make a profit selling the aluminium, win-win.
6. Same with window envelopes. Into the flotation tanks they go. The paper sinks, the windows float. Magic!
7. Pyrex is not glass (don’t argue, it just isn’t, ok?) It cannot be recycled.
8. Food waste is ladled into huge anaerobic digestion (AD) silos and munched by micro-organisms. This makes a methane-rich gas that really pongs. It’s used as a fuel and the leftovers become fertiliser. No waste, nothing to landfill. The best way to recycle food is to buy less and eat it all.
9. The gloss on glossy magazines is not plastic. It’s actually china clay. Bet you didn’t know that.
10. Cardboard still heads for China to make new packaging for goods they send back to us. A double bonus as container ships don’t travel empty in either direction. Greasy pizza boxes are a no-no. A real shame, as it’s very good cardboard. Dave recently went to an entire conference about greasy pizza boxes.
My takeaway from the day: