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What happens to your recycling once it’s collected from your bin?

Published: 4 April 2022

What happens to your recycling once it’s collected from your bin? Plastics

In his regular feature, Denis the Dustcart talks about plastics and what happens to your recycling once it’s collected from your bin.

You can follow Denis on his Facebook page to keep up with information about Recycling issues.

It’s hard to know the truth, sometimes. What happens to your recycling once it’s collected from your bin?

Let me start by stating that everything we sort and sell from your green bins in Exeter stays in the UK for recycling, and all transactions are subject to the strict rules we impose on ourselves to ensure minimum environmental impact overall and maximum financial benefit to public services in Exeter.

We sort our plastic well enough that our clear plastic bottles can become clear plastic bottles and trays and our milk bottles can become milk bottles where these options are available. Our shopping bags become plastic sacks for Exeter’s street bins. None of it leaves these shores.

But there are things that simply can’t be recycled through standard local authority collections – crinkly salad bags, crisp packets and pet food pouches among them. Such things require specialist processes that we can’t feed in to. It’s also true that markets shift, and recycling routes close down while others open. Information becomes out-of-date quickly in this business.

We recognise that transparency is the key to trust. That is partly why we established his Facebook page.

In the past we have promoted the message, ‘If it’s plastic packaging, put it in your green bin’. We have been able to hand-sort plastic in our Materials Reclamation Facility (MRF) for over twenty years, and with the confusion caused by generic labelling it became easier, at the time, to say, ‘Put it all in your green bin and let us sort the wheat from the chaff.’ We wanted to make things simple for Exeter residents, and we also didn’t want to risk missing out on valuable plastics.

But we don’t want to risk misleading anyone, either. We aren’t interested in greenwashing our services, but neither do we want to cause confusion over what can and will actually be recycled after we’ve taken it from your green bin.

We can’t do everything, but it’s a fact that there are things we can do that most other local authorities can’t.

And it’s because of how we operate.

Operating our own MRF enables us to separate material effectively and to retain control over both that material and how we run things.

It’s unusual that a local authority can even accept polythene bags in residents’ recycling bins, but we have gone even further by entering directly into an arrangement with a UK plastic film reprocessor to get these bags recycled into sacks for use in Exeter’s litter bins. This makes us the first local authority in the country to provide a UK-based circular solution for bags and films.

The bags and film we can take in your recycling bin in Exeter are: ‘stretchy’ polythene such as bags for life, bread bags, frozen goods and fresh produce bags (like potato bags), and toilet paper wrap and drink cans wrap.

The kinds of films we can’t take, and for which there are severely limited recycling options, include: crinkly bags and wrap such as salad bags, pasta packets and fresh tomato packets, as well as crisp packets, pet food pouches, clingfilm and compostable/biodegradable bags.

There are well-publicised national schemes for film recycling, but you could look at it this way: it’s a bit like supporting at a local, independent business rather than shopping at a large chain. Giving us your good-quality plastic bags means investing in a closed-loop solution that is not only better for the environment generally, but also benefits your city directly through boosting the local economy.

We take very seriously our obligation to know exactly what happens to the recycling we sell. This, to us, means going beyond our commitment to selling only to reputable buyers and through reputable brokers; it means being clear and resolute in our intention to improve our services to you while actively pursuing only the most sustainable solutions for your recycling.

Ultimately, the better recycling is sorted, the more potential there is for it to be turned into useful, and therefore valuable, products again – and we have always recognised the potential in certain plastics for which there are limited solutions within traditional local authority recycling markets.

We know how and why cheap plastic ends up in holes in the ground in far-off places, and we know how to avoid that happening to any of the recycling we sell – but this isn’t enough. We want to reduce as much as possible the amount of material we can’t get recycled, the stuff we have to send on to Exeter’s Waste to Energy Plant.

Now, it’s important to note that sending recycling overseas doesn’t always mean not taking responsibility for it. A few years ago we were sending our clear plastic bottles to Germany, to a company we knew turned them into plastic bottles. There was no comparable UK solution at that time. When a UK solution became available, we transferred our business.

Bottles may be one of the more easily recycled items, but getting them recycled into bottles again means going the extra mile.

We still send some of the fishing nets we sort from regional ports, harbours and beach cleans to Europe to be recycled, but that’s because the only companies that can actually recycle these nets are based there. And how many other local authorities are involved in recycling fishing nets, anyway?

The ‘Blue Planet effect’, exposés of UK plastic found in overseas landfill sites and China’s ban on plastic scrap imports all served to erode the public’s trust in their recycling services – or, rather, they gave rise to an exponential increase in awareness around waste (particularly plastic waste) that activated the zero-waste movement and prompted people to question what happened to their recycling after their Council collected it.

The majority of the plastic found on roadsides in Turkey or in Malaysian dumping sites was from mixed plastic loads that carried no value beyond government recycling subsidies accumulated through brokers as the ‘recycling’ crossed national borders.

In the immediate aftermath of these reports, we were able to reassure concerned Exeter residents that we hadn’t been using these controversial routes for our recycling, since we didn’t produce the kinds of loads susceptible to mishandling. Being able to sort our plastic into valuable individual streams meant that we actually attracted bids from companies who needed to make new packaging. Anything we couldn’t recycle – the ‘scrap’ – we treated as rubbish for disposal locally.

Even so, we have had to take a flexible approach to telling people what to do with some plastics.

Black plastic, for example, has never been a problem for us to separate from the other plastic, but by avoiding infrared detection it presents difficulties in the plants where plastic is further processed for manufacturing. So the difficulty for us wasn’t being able to sort it, but finding anywhere that would take it.

From time to time, solutions for difficult materials have opened up only to close down later on. Markets shift. Sometimes we could find a home for black plastic. Most of the time we couldn’t.

But we believe in maximising our potential to have a positive impact on the environment, and by taking key steps we have created solutions for your plastic that no other local authority has achieved so far.

We have been able to collaborate with regional organisations, charities and innovators who have created products using the kinds of plastics that don’t have any market value in the usual sense.

Put simply, no operator of a national MRF, receiving plastic from local authorities and businesses all over the country, is going to accept and process problem plastics separately that can only be sold to small, boutique recyclers. It is simply financially unviable for them to do so, thus the material is rendered valueless within the general market.

But we, as a local MRF operator, can circumnavigate these major plants entirely, selling directly to the manufacturers and thereby giving the material some value regionally.

Working with partners like Odyssey Innovation – who take our plastics to manufacture products like kayaks, surfing handplanes, boxes, bins and other goods – has led us to pursue more reliable and purposeful solutions for other problem plastics.

Last year we installed a shredder and granulator in our plant that allows us to go beyond sorting problem rigid plastics and to actually prepare them for manufacturing. This piece of kit not only benefits the work we do with Odyssey, but enables us to produce a plastic granulate for manufacturing into products created regionally –  such as Recyclebound driveways by Oltco in Newquay and phone cases by Nurdle.

While the options for the kinds of products problem rigid plastics can be turned into are limited (for instance, a coat hanger won’t be turned back into a coat hanger), we are able nevertheless to give them an extra, meaningful life without their ever leaving the country.

We of course believe in good economics, too, which is why everything we do is costed to ensure an income for public services in Exeter.

It’s more important than ever that as many people recycle as much as possible – or at least recycle what they can’t either reuse or avoid buying in the first place. But for that to happen, people need to feel confident that what they put in their recycling bin will actually be recycled. That it won’t end up on a roadside in Turkey.

That is why we opt for transparency and why we treat it as our moral responsibility to seek the most sustainable solutions for what we can accept for recycling.

If we have to tell you we cannot accept something in the green bin, it will be for a good reason. It doesn’t mean we aren’t looking for a solution; it simply means we haven’t found one right now.

Some things we may never find solutions for. Some may prove too difficult for anyone to process meaningfully, which is why there has to be a shift in solutions-based thinking away from treating recycling as a golden bullet and towards packaging redesign and reduction – and ultimately a reduction in the availability on non-essential products.

If we can’t get something recycled, we will take to Exeter’s Waste to Energy plant. This includes crinkly bags, crisp packets, scrap textiles, etc.. We don’t want it travelling further than it needs to.

But we won’t stop pushing ourselves to seek the very best solutions available within our means.

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