The Harsh Realities of Waste and Recycling

In this article, we briefly look inside a Materials Recovery Facility and hear about the impressive recycling stats achieved by the conscientious citizens of the Stroud district. In sharp contrast, we also find out how a fifth of our waste is being dumped illegally, from listening to a podcast investigating the biggest waste crime in UK history.

Inside a Materials Recovery Facility

Cllr Chloe Turner recently visited the Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) that sorts and sells on recycling waste collected by people who live in the Stroud district, Gloucestershire. In the district council’s leaders blog this month, Chloe writes:

“It was amazing to see what happens there: a jumbled mix of green bin recycling winds its way on a conveyor belt through a complex series of processes – magnets, rotating sieves, optical identification, air jets, vibration and hand picking. By the end, streams of cans, glass and each type of plastic are ready to be baled and sold to the next user. Nothing is wasted: even a ‘confetti’ of small fragments is used as the raw material for a nearby concrete manufacturer.”

Chloe says that the residents of her district are fantastic recyclers and are amongst the best in the UK. She also points out where improvements can be made, for example by keeping plastic bags out of the recycling bin, as they can’t be recycled at the MRF. Soft plastic can be disposed of at supermarket collection bins and are, in theory, recycled by the supermarket. In my experience, these bins are either very small, hard to find, or overflowing. Some supermarkets stopped this service after the initial pilot. However, Chloe also points out that it is better to avoid the waste in the first place and links to our community-run website for great tips to avoid the unnecessary packaging that fills up our bins in the first place: How to get started

Waste crime has a hold on a fifth of our waste

In a speech by the Environment Agency’s Chief Executive at a  Let’s Recycle and Environmental Services Association event, Sir James Bevan said that as long as six years ago he called waste crime ‘the new narcotics’. It was estimated that 18% of waste is managed illegally at some point in the waste stream. Since that speech, the problem seems to have grown bigger. 

A brand new podcast this month tells the story of the biggest environment crime in the UK’s history, at a secret, million-tonne waste dump in Northern Ireland. Buried (Radio 4, Spotify and Apple podcast) is true crime investigative journalism as compelling as any crime thriller. The story is still unravelling right now, even years after the site has been closed and the painstaking task of cleaning up the biggest, most toxic environment disaster is underway. 

The problem of illegal, toxic waste dumps run by criminals is widespread and dumps are often sited near rivers, residential areas and even in national parks across the UK. As much as a fifth of our waste is being handled illegally

“Imagine if a fifth of cafes you went into were run by the mafia,” one of the podcast makers says to the Guardian. “Imagine the outrage. But because it is waste, we close our eyes and throw it away.” 

I imagine that much of the waste talked about here is industrial waste. At first glance, industrial waste seems to have little to do with our own lives and our kerbside recycling services. But looking at the larger picture, we are all implicated as consumers. What both of these stories highlight is the need to reduce our waste across the board, even in countries with a fairly robust system of waste collection like the UK.