What happens to your recycling after you've put it out for collection?
Published: 29 June 2020
In his regular feature, Denis the Dustcart talks about what happens to your recycling after you put it in your green bin and we take it away.
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I've been getting a few questions about this news piece from people understandably concerned about what happens to their recycling after they've put it out for collection in their green bin.
I'd like to reassure you that your recycling efforts in Exeter are wholly worthwhile.
We are one of the few authorities in the country to own and operate a Materials Reclamation Facility (MRF). We run our waste collection service in-house (i.e. we don’t engage a third-party to empty bins and sort our recycling); we bring the green bin contents to our own MRF in our own trucks for sorting and we take the rubbish from black bins to Exeter’s Energy from Waste plant to generate electricity for the grid.
We employ over 20 people in our MRF and are able to separate recyclate into valuable 'streams', which we sell to companies that we know will turn it into new products.
In fact, the material we produce from our plant is of such high quality that it actually attracts bidders. We are able to sort plastic, for instance, into six streams: milk bottles, clear plastic bottles, coloured plastic bottles, pots/tubs/trays, film/bags and oversized items (drums, marine crates, etc.).
The plastic shipped from the UK that ends up in holes in the ground in other countries is poorer quality mixed plastic – i.e. plastic that hasn’t been sorted before being sold. It’s because we sort our plastic so well that we weren’t affected by China’s ban on plastic imports: we didn’t send our thoroughly separated plastic there anyway, and we didn’t send it to Malaysia either.
If we present a good enough product from our plant that the reprocessor is willing to pay extra for it, they are unlikely then to mislead us and ship material to a landfill site. It just wouldn’t be a viable economic practice.
The better we can sort material after collecting it from green bins, the less sorting it requires after we sell it, the more companies will pay for it and the less likely it is to simply get dumped.
We do send some recyclate to EU countries, but this is only to guarantee that the material we sort in our plant will get recycled into quality products. We send clear plastic bottles, for example, to Germany, because that is where they can be turned back into clear bottles rather than a product of less reusable value. There is no UK-based reprocessor that can offer this solution.
So while some of Exeter’s recycling will head overseas, sending quality material to other countries to be turned into a quality product isn’t the same thing as shipping unprocessed material to an overseas reprocessor that can’t then sort it or make use of it.
We always follow the supply chain: we want to know that what we sell becomes a product again. At the moment, authorities only have to know that a registered buyer has the relevant permits in place, which could be directly or through a broker. It’s only through a moral obligation that we at Exeter follow anything further.
Of course, there are many materials for which there is no onward market. Plastic films, for instance, have zero value. We would always encourage people to think carefully about what they bring into their homes, and to reuse anything they can (salad bags are good for wrapping sandwiches) until they become unusable and then pop them in their black bin to be taken directly to the Energy from Waste plant. This just saves us having to make a separate trip there.
We are actually working with other authorities in the region that struggle to move their plastics on. We are able to sort their plastic effectively and sell it on through our channels. Exeter also benefits economically from the sale of the material.
We are also playing a very important role in keeping the oceans and beaches in the South West clear of plastic. We established Ocean Recovery Project along with BeachCare (a Keep Britain Tidy programme) and Fathoms Free, a group of volunteer divers and sea conservationists. ORP collects discarded marine and beach plastic and delivers it to Exeter City Council’s Materials Reclamation Facility, where it is sorted, batched up and sent for recycling. Ten tonnes of ORP-collected plastic went into making a stage at Glastonbury last year.
We have worked hard to gain a good reputation in the industry for selling an excellent product and consequently our material is renowned for its high quality. With the hugely appreciated collective effort of Exeter residents and our committed staff we are best placed to continue to ensure it gets properly recycled.
Our priorities are as follows:
- to effect behavioural change around consumerism by supporting consumers in making informed choices and reducing their waste;
- to raise awareness about manufacturing processes and obligations;
- to ensure what material comes out of our recycling collection service is the highest possible quality for selling on;
- to follow the supply chain until what we sell on becomes a product and not waste again.
I hope this reassures anyone in any doubt. Your efforts are very much worthwhile and sincerely appreciated by all of us here.