• Our Business is Rubbish!

    Kerbside waste separation isn’t working! The argument for the return to commingled waste collection (UK).

    On the 6th of March 2013 following a Judicial Review the courts ruled that for England and Wales commingled waste collections were lawful under EU regulations. The proviso being that the waste streams are recycled where possible.

    When householder waste separation was introduced the initial response by those householders was to embrace the concept of them sorting the various waste fractions into separate bins. They wanted to do their bit to save the planet. We all readily received our boxes for this and our bins for that. However as time went on for many householders apathy has set in and they have given up on this concept. For others they simple put the fractions in the wrong boxes and always have done. While those living in apartment blocks may not have suitable space to store all the separate bins anyway.

    Various studies have shown that as much as 40% is put into the wrong bins meaning that this social experiment is an abysmal and costly failure. Of course no one is ready to admit to that obvious conclusion because some environmental awareness is better than none. To renew interest in this process some local Authorities are now offering incentives for householders to continue to source-segregate their waste, while others are threatening fines for non-compliance. The management and policing of this exercise is a costly and often ineffective adding an unnecessary burden to those Authorities. In the US these incentives such as that run by RecycleBank (who also operate in the UK) are starting to be dropped now. When the cost/benefit ratios are reviewed over time it doesn’t make commercial sense to continue with them.

    By now the lids off the paper boxes have long blown away (to be recycled we hope). Scavengers will often find a way into the food boxes. Glass, metals and plastics are generally put in the same bin, which means it has to be sorted elsewhere anyway. Separated waste streams require separate collections. This has created difficulties for some local Authorities who do not have the resources or manpower resulting in proposed reduced waste collection cycles. Or worse making additional charges to the householders to collect their rubbish. In all cases it increases collection and handing costs that were supposed to be offset by the income received from the recycled fractions. This in practise has not happened.

    Let’s look at these fractions separately;

    Glass represents about 5% of total household waste. It is heavy, bulky and potentially dangerous to manually handle. Coloured glass always retains its colour. For recycling to be used as glass again all the colours have to be separated as they are chemically incompatible. This sorting can be done manually with the associated hazards, or by machine. Such machines are very expensive to purchase and they consume power to run. Neither process is a 100% accurate.

    Many wine bottles are green and this represents the largest single colour. Demand for green recycled glass never meets the supply available and therefore there is always a surplus of green. This in turn depresses the price for this colour. It can of course be exported to wine producing regions. However this is unlikely to be a viable exercise, a fact often overlooked when considering recycling in general.

    Although representing only a small percentage of the total waste stream, glass requires a lot of energy during production and therefore it is important to reuse this resource. So what can we use it for? Ground glass has many uses and can be mixed with the small amount of ceramic also found in household waste. Glass aggregate is not sharp to handle and it has good thermal qualities. It can be used in insulation. It can be added to concrete or used in brick making. When added to clay it creates a sintering effect that reduces curing time and dramatically decreases the amount of heat required. This passive benefit of energy saving goes someway to offset the energy used to create the original glass. Glass can be used as an abrasive and this is a common and established use.

    We should mention bottle banks here. User colour separation is not always correct for several reasons such as the green slot is full up. When the bins are full up bottles are left around the outside, creating a hazard to children and pets and an eyesore to the general public. Because of the weight of glass people generally drive to the bottle banks. Then a large vehicle is used to collect that glass. The pollution created by those vehicle journeys and the fuel used is a hidden environmental cost.

    Why do people use bottle banks when they can simply place the bottles and cans in the appropriate bin at their front doors? We can only conclude that they do not wish to display to their neighbours (or themselves) the numbers of empties they have created in a week or two. This was not an issue when all waste went into a single bin.

    Plastics fall into separate types. The main ones in household use are PET used for fizzy drinks bottles, etc. HDPE is stronger and used for milk bottles, shampoos, etc. PVC is used for windows, pipes, etc. LDPE is used for plastic bags, bin liners and similar. PP is used for ready meals, butter tubs, etc. PS is used for yogurt pots, egg cartons and similar. Not all these plastics can be recycled by traditional methods. It is easy to see that a householder may put the wrong plastics together, which negates the value of exercise. Again there is very expensive machinery that will separate these different types but it will never sort with 100% accuracy and there is a cost to purchasing and then running those machines too.

    PET is the plastic most often seen sent for export to China or wherever. We have never understood the logic from a ‘green’ perspective of how this can be environmentally sound. The plastic is sorted, compressed and strapped to a pallet. It is transported by road or rail to a port where it is loaded onto a ship. It is then taken half way around the world where it is again handled off the vessel and onto transport. Finally it ends up at a reprocessing plant. A plant that uses energy to process that plastic. The quality is not always good, it contains some mismatched fractions and a minimum of 5% paper at very best (from the sticky labels used) and traces of whatever it once held.

    The recycled plastic may be used for food contact in various ways and studies continue to decide if contamination may occur. Western Governments have rules regarding the use of recycled plastics in food containers and certain recycling processes do remove risk. Other processes may not. This is a gray area that is not being correctly addressed. This alone in our opinion is an argument against this form of recycling.

    PET can be recycled into polyester. Polyester has many uses from clothing to industrial applications. Therefore this is a very useful recycling exercise we see this becoming a leading use for this plastic. There are mountains of this plastic piled up around the world and therefore there is a ready feed stock available to create local industries based around this emerging technology.

    With the recent announcement from China that it will now only accept the better quality recyclables and those goods rejected will not be landed. This creates a risk for the exporter of those goods as by their very nature it will be very difficult to gauge the quality and know what is or is not acceptable. This will force the market to adopt better procedures that will add considerable cost and undoubtedly will negate the viability of this exercise. Alternative uses for these waste fractions will need to be found. PET to polyester is one such alternative option.

    Other plastics such as thin sheet (LDPE) and tubs (PS) are not recycled. Thus wasting a valuable resource. At this point it would be appropriate to mention paper carry bags in place of plastic ones. The energy and resources used to create a paper bag is far greater than the energy and resources used to create a plastic one. Therefore from an ecological stand point there is no good reason to use paper bags apart from the fact that the plastic ones are not recycled at this time. Some Governments have banned plastic bags while others are imposing small levies on the use of those bags. Northern Ireland has recently announced a 5p levy per bag to encourage shoppers to bring their own bags to the stores.

    We believe that the campaign against plastic bags has arisen simply because this is the most visual environmental eyesore. Being very light (and often white in colour) these bags can be blown around to become trapped in trees, bushes and fences. The intrinsic issue here is not that the plastic bags are bad but that the disposal method is either missing or very poor.

    Plastic is derived from oil and there are now several processes available to reconstitute certain plastics into oil and transport fuels. This technology is still in its infancy but great progress has been made and working models are being produced around the world. This is a worthwhile exercise and more should be done to promote this option. This can be run on a small scale locally and the equipment can be purchased for a modest sum. Clearly the oil conglomerates have little or no interest in this technology and Governments would be concerned about fuel excise revenues and how to manage and police that. Therefore interest is muted to say the least.

    Metals, ferrous and non-ferrous are a useful fraction to recycle. Proprietary equipment is readily available that sorts and separates metals by magnetic roller or eddy current. Generally, the bulk of metals are placed by householders in bins with glass and plastics and therefore it has to be sorted again anyway. This happens whether it goes in the main bin or the special one.

    Aluminium can be recycled indefinitely and is therefore the perfect product for reuse. Other metals can be reused many times and this is a well established industry throughout the world. However these only represent a small fraction of the total waste stream and there is no good reason to have separate storage and collection procedures.

    Paper is also separated by the householder. Often this is mixed up with packaging; plastic is left on unopened magazines. Adhesives and staples will be found. Cardboard is added. Paper is often seen blowing down the road on many a collection day. Creating more mess than doing good. Recycled paper is of far lower quality than the original. The length of the fibres in paper shortens during each recycle process; therefore there is limited reuse of this product. As more recycled paper is found in households it necessarily follows that the worth of that paper from a recycling point of view will diminish.

    Paper is difficult to handle and store particularly when wet (after the box lid has blown away!). Like plastics, paper is often sold overseas and transported great distances with the associated costs and environmental impact attached to that exercise.

    Recycled paper can be used for animal bedding, paper towels, dust masks, etc. However we would argue that viability of producing these low value products by this method is questionable.

    Finally, on paper one aspect that we believe may have been overlooked is identity theft. By placing bank statements, credit card statements, utility bills and similar into our special boxes and then placing those boxes outside our homes overnight. We are inviting identity thieves to help themselves to our private information, whether it is in our street, at the local depot or if not properly shredded even in China! Furthermore, there is an illegal trade in all these exported goods that are sent out without licence.

    The last fraction separated by householders is food waste. We are asked to put our potato peelings into a biodegrading bag and store them in our little rodent proof bins for up to two weeks before collection. It is a sad fact that much food is wasted in the developed world. But this exercise is simply paying lip-service to the recycling lobby. Storing small amounts of rotting and stinking food scraps for later collection makes no sense no matter what they end up using it for. Furthermore, householders are expected to provide their own biodegradable bags for this food waste.

    On top of all these separate collections we still have our regular bin for everything else. Packaging makes up a large part of this. With many of our favourite products now being produced overseas the packaging has become far more robust to make that long journey. Textiles that do have a ready recycling market often end up in this bin. Together with thin plastics, sanitary products including nappies, garden waste (where this is allowed by the local authority, or not), wood, broken toys and broken small electrical appliances. Spent batteries (banned), spent light bulbs, ash, animal litter and even animal faeces. Dead pets end up in bins and there may be other hazardous wastes too!

    In spite of all these efforts some 50% of household waste (within the UK) is still taken to landfill. It is often being transported over very long distances with the associated costs and environmental impact. It is time for a rethink and time for a whole new approach to waste management and disposal. It is time to return to one bin for all our waste. It is time to revert to a system that served us well for many, many years. One simplified collection for all our waste each week. A collection that is easy to manage and economical to operate.

    But before we do that we have to understand why householder recycling was introduced in the first place. It was promoted to involve the general public in understanding how much waste they produced and what happened to it. The cost of landfill continued to increase and within the EU a landfill tax was introduced, currently £72.00 (April 2013) per tonne and rising. The ‘green’ lobby had successfully increased awareness that landfill was not only polluting the planet but we were also throwing away a valuable resource too.

    Alternative disposal was then limited to incineration that obviously could only process organic matter. Therefore it became essential to separate organic from non-organic and home source-segregation was born. The next target for the ‘green’ lobby was those very incinerators. These huge eyesores are a blot on the landscape. The cost to build them runs into the hundreds of million pounds and they can only process some 60% of household waste fractions. They do produce energy but they produce pollution too. These plants are unlikely to be viable concerns even with business models based on 40 years’ service.

    The pollution incinerators create contains dioxins, furans and acid gases some of these known to be carcinogenic. Flues are becoming bigger and bigger to pump their filth out at a higher level with some now at 60 or 70 metres high. All that does is send the pollutants somewhere else. Of course huge advances have been made with this technology and it is a lot cleaner than it was even ten years ago. However it is still of great concern to anyone living close to one of these plants. The ash created is also very toxic and this has to be disposed of in landfill, which rather defeats the whole exercise. Much investment has been made in this redundant technology and incineration will be with us for some time.

    A report issued by Defra on the 9th of February 2013 (UK Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) stated that following a UK survey, some 60% of reprocessing managers at MRF’s (materials recycling facilities) rejected the bulk of source-segregated waste streams as unusable and much of this was sent to land fill! In fact 75% of MRF’s claimed that local Authority waste was of worse quality than their other suppliers. On average 18% of mixed plastics cannot be recycled. For mixed paper the figure was 15%. This is a disgrace to say the very least.

    We should say here that we have no objection to recycling of the various waste fractions if properly managed by professionals in purpose made premises suitably equipment and staffed. In fact we would go further and say that this is the only way that waste segregation should be managed. With properly trained staff, wearing protective clothing and with bespoke equipment the success of this exercise would be far greater and importantly even become viable!

    Before we can return to commingled waste collection we have to have a disposal method that can process all of this waste unsorted. A system that automatically separates the metals, that automatically pulverizes and separates the glass and ceramics while processing all the organic fractions into a biomass for safe onward use. To do all this with zero environmental impact, with progress towards zero landfill, all within a viable commercial undertaking. That technology is available now.

    Our systems are designed to process commingled waste (MSW), or single stream wastes. We can process plastics, tyres, garden and agricultural waste, textiles, scrap wood, or even processed sewage. All non-organic fractions (metals, etc) are automatically separated for onward recycling. The remaining bio waste is then passed through stages to be converted to synthetic gas, or to generate steam.

    We can also process crops grown for fuel but we do not advocate this use of land. Farms should grow food and not fuel. As this market develops the demand for fuel crops will increase and this must have an effect on food crop prices. Plus with variable weather conditions supply can also vary and this will affect cost. Crops grow in cycles and will therefore have to be stored for use over a twelve month period adding further costs to the whole exercise.

    The process we use is pyrolysis, a well established technology that has been in existence for many years. Pyrolysis rapidly accelerates decomposition of organic matter by using heat without oxygen. This is endothermic as opposed to exothermic in that there is no burning of the waste as in an incineration plant. Everything is contained within the process; there is no smoke or fumes. Toxins are broken down and neutralised within the reactor. Unlike other systems to process waste ours runs on a continuous basis and is therefore efficient in use.

    Being modular we can design the plant to process the waste capacity of the urbanisation it serves. Hubs can service an area of thirty miles around the plant. This distance should be the maximum that waste is transported (unless when servicing small rural locations) and ideally it should be shorter. The premises can be sited in any industrial estate as there no pollution emitted from the plant. Or it can be sited next to existing land fill sites.

    The cost of our plant is dramatically lower than the cost of an incinerator to process the equivalent amount of waste and we process a far higher percentage of that waste without any pollution. We are also far cheaper than Plasma technologies and more efficient than Anaerobic Digestion systems. Because we can accept commingled waste our systems are suitable for those parts of the world that do not operate source-segregation. Where waste separation is now carried out we believe that those responsible will eventually look for cheaper disposal solutions. By offering savings in time, effort and money on the collection side, this will make our process a very attractive option to consider.

    Non-organic fractions are collected, collated and sold into an established market for those goods.

    No pollution is created by the process and we are committed to sending nothing at all to landfill. We describe this near to 100% recycling as ‘Urban Mining’ because the valuable resource is there for the picking.

    We understand that some of these comments may to some be considered controversial. We are publishing this as we wish to create a dialogue on this issue. We welcome your feedback.

    We have taken information from various public sources. When quoting percentages these were current at the time of writing. Also there is often conflicting information published and we have taken what we trust is the most current and most reliable.

    Please contact the author at feedback@recyclewaste.co. whether you agree or disagree we welcome your comments.

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