Talking rubbish

Photo by Chris Young / CC-BY-SA 4.0

Published: 27 Aug 2018

In addition to composting, many of us dutifully separate and put recyclable food and drink packaging out for collection, perhaps with the nagging fear that it all just gets chucked in the same bin and sent to landfill.  Sam Sinha rummages around to shed some light on what happens to your lovingly sorted stuff after collection.

The majority of councils will accept almost all your waste, including garden waste and textiles, common exceptions being cling film, black sacks, wet paper and soiled nappies. Pretty reasonable really, these council workers are people too.

After collection mixed recycling is generally taken to an MRF (Materials Recovery Facility) in or near London, where it is sorted. First bulky items like cardboard and certain types of plastics are picked out by hand, then high tech robots separate glass, steel, aluminium, paper, cartons and plastics from each other. A further hand-selection process follows to catch anything that is left before the machines come back in for a final check.

Out of sight

The sorted waste is sent for further processing by private companies. This is where things get a bit vague. The line spun by almost every council asked is that these materials are sent “to the UK and overseas”, but further details are hard to come by. We know which companies take on the waste but they’re not obligated to tell us what they do with it.

It is estimated that the vast majority is processed in the UK. But we know that China takes a lot of our plastics. It may seem crazy to ship them halfway around the world, but these ships would otherwise be returning empty after delivering all the plastic goods we buy, so it’s a little hypocritical to get on our high horse about it. As ever, it’s us who are driving the demand.

A criticism that is commonly levelled at the boroughs is that they don’t do enough to work together. With 33 separate organisations collecting different types of waste in different ways, it is a complicated situation. There are strides being taken to address this.

Breaking the cycle

LEDnet (The London Environment Directors’ Network) is a forum for leading environment thinkers to effect positive change. They are working closely with the ironically named, WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Programme) – a government and EU backed charity that aims to accelerate progress towards a sustainable circular economy where all waste is reused. The organisation helps businesses, governments and industry as a whole to improve resource flow right from manufacture, through consumer use, to waste management.

Keith Townsend, Chair of LEDNet had this to say: “Recycling in London is slowly getting better. We can and should do more to improve recycling [but] we must also focus real effort on minimising waste. This has to start at the top, with the right carrots and sticks to ensure that producers vastly increase the recyclability and recycled content of the products and packaging they put into the market.”

Despite what most people think, London is slowly moving towards a sustainable waste management system. Organisations including The London Waste and Recycling Board are working together with government and industry to address the issue at every stage but there’s still a whole lot of work to be done.

Who’s responsible for what you bin?

East London Waste Authority (ELWA)
Redbridge, Havering, Barking & Dagenham and Newham.
North London Waste Authority (NLWA)
Barnet, Enfield, Haringey, Waltham Forest, Camden, Hackney and Islington.
Western Riverside Waste Authority (WRWA)
Hillingdon, Brent, Harrow, Ealing, Hounslow and Richmond-upon-Thames.
West London Waste Authority (WLWA)
Hammersmith & Fulham, Kensington & Chelsea, Wandsworth and Lambeth.
South London Waste Partnership (a voluntary partnership)
Merton, Kingston upon Thames, Croydon and Sutton

The other 12 boroughs collect and dispose of their own waste.