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From naivety to a new resolve

Visiting Southwark Recycling Facility

I really am naive.

I’m not sure what I was expecting to find at the recycling facility but…

Did I really think that there would be some kind of sterilisation machine for glass and cans?

Did I really think that the glass jars would go off and be filled up with jam again, ready to sell at the supermarket? and the cans would be refilled with soup or chopped tomatoes, sealed and put back on the supermarket shelf?

I am clearly far too practical, as both those things make sense to me. Because surely the circle would be complete, and they would be reused for the same purpose they were produced. Clearly, I’m too far ahead of my time. The circular economy is not yet that far advanced. (I think, but prove me wrong please).

Inside the facility, the cans get crushed, as do the skip fulls of tetra packs, the hoards of cardboard, newspaper and mixed paper (which a nifty ultrared ray machine quietly detects via the light that rebounds off each discarded paper going through it- optical sorting- differentiation by precision. It then gets blown off the conveyor belt with a jet of air, I like that bit), plastics (that old chestnut) and not forgetting aluminium and steel. In fact each product gets separately bulked up into huge bails (and I mean the size of a small lorry) wrapped up in wire and stored ready to be loaded onto arctic lorries. (I have visions of lorries covered in snow and ice)

It’s bought up by contractors who make it into something else. I ask the lady who very efficiently shows us around, what happens to the bulked up products, what does it get made into? ‘We don’t know what. It depends on the contractors. They change quite often in response to the market value for the product.’

Of course. I am so naïve. It’s a commercial product after all, subject to fluctuations in the economy as any other product.

She continues ‘We do know that ever since the glass subsidy was stopped by the government, glass is hard to get rid of. Now it’s only use is underlay for roads, under the tarmac.’

Goodness. Does that mean that all my jam jars in my cupboard are made from virgin glass? quite possibly.

If I thought that there would be sterilisation machines, I had not been prepared for hand sorting.

On the top floor of the facility in an air-conditioned room, hardworking men and women sorted through bits and pieces on the conveyer belt as it came through. The bits that hadn’t been sifted by the rotating discs of various sizes on the multiple levels of conveyor belts: a labyrinth running up, down and across like ski slopes around the facility. They are sorting on average 60 items per minute, from contaminated objects, to plastic bags – either put in a bin or sucked up into a huge tube coming out of the ceiling. Plastic bags, we were assured, were made into black bin bags, but she said they had far too many of them. Quite a lot ended up tangled amongst the rotating discs- removed by hand when the machines were switched off- not just a nuisance but considered to be another source of contamination (contrary to popular opinion, recycling should be put loose into the wheelie bin/box rather than bagged up).

As we walk up and then down the levels, I am taking in the sheer amount of machine and human resources that are going into this business. The ultimate aim, to have a ‘clean’ product, that is not contaminated and therefore not rejected by the producer. A rather delicate point, which China recently cited when pulling out of taking around 30% of our recyclable plastics. ‘This facility’, she announced, ‘carries out daily testing of the products to make sure contamination is low – with a track record of only 1% going to landfill as a result of contamination.’

These things clearly matter. I’m getting it now.

As we walk back from the facility to the educational centre, she says ‘It makes me really upset when people say there’s no point in recycling because it all goes to landfill. Well that’s just not true. You can see the amount of resources and effort that goes into this facility to ensure our waste is recycled properly.’

She was dead right about that.

On my way home I muse. Recycling is no doubt a good thing to do, and what we must do- responsibly. Given that space for landfill is running out, and it costs the tax payer a ton of cash to put rubbish in the ground, Recycling is definitely a good thing.

But my overwhelming feeling coming away was the imperative we have to Reduce. Why are we consuming and producing so much of this waste in the first place?

Reduce and Reuse first. The resolve to continue the mantra of our #PlasticFreeMerton campaign burned even brighter. Reduce, Reuse, Refuse. Of that I am even more convinced.

Recycle when you really have to.

I will certainly be making my own jams this summer. OH and washing (with new vigour) my yoghurt pots, cans (and whatever else needs it) before I put it in the recycling bin.”

Sandy McClure, Community Champions Project Manager


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