Touring the World of Recyclers

That the earth’s resources are finite is not in question. Depending on the selected timescale, even the sun would someday run out of nuclear material for its light and heat production process. What has been the issue for many persons and organisations, especially, those with pro-earth views, is how best to use the earth’s resources in a sustainable manner. One of such means is the use of recycling. This article recounts a tour of a recycling facility in England.

Without being told, most people are engaged in recycling in one form or the other. When you use a disposable food container to preserve some food in a refrigerator, you’re in effect recycling that container, same with when you reuse a shopping bag. There are several examples of domestic and industrial reuse or repurposing of materials. These can be considered as “freewill” recycling. Nonetheless, in some countries, there are formal regulations requiring that certain materials should be recycled. In some areas, putting recyclable materials into general waste bins can earn one a fine. Waste collection teams collect different wastes and deliver the recyclable stream to facilities designed for such.

I joined the Cranfield University Green Team to visit Cawleys Recycling Facility in Luton, somewhere in England. After the pre-tour HSE form fillings and briefing, we were issued protective equipment, most importantly, nose masks to save those soft nostrils of ours. We began the tour from the inlet point where waste materials are brought into the facility. At this area, two loaders create piles of wastes that are then fed into the first of many sets of conveyor belts and computer-monitored infrared sensors. Across different stages, waste is separated based on material type and weight. Different grades of paper and cardboard materials are separated from wood and metals, with electromagnets being employed to remove ferrous metals. The plant is semi-automated, so there is a room filled with people manually segregating some waste materials as they slide on conveyor belts across long tables. Some materials are then sent to other specialised recycling plants for further processing.

Now to the business side of things. The recycling firm sells the paper and some other materials to factories in China and a few other countries (including the UK) where they would be reused to make new products. I was surprised to learn that China is the world’s leader in recycling, with its numerous factories buying “usable” waste materials from countries around the world, and being influential enough to determine prices. In the words of a staff at Cawleys, “If China don’t want it, it’s valueless since other customers can’t buy at China’s scale”.

It’s not all about making money though. For some materials, the recycling firm has to pay for their disposal. These include batteries, refrigerators and some phone and computer parts. Waste materials that are judged to have no recyclable value also cost the firm money. Before now, such “useless” waste would go into landfills or be incinerated. However, with increased environmental concerns and opposition to building incinerators, much of the waste cannot be disposed in the UK. Such wastes are sent to countries such as Germany for use as refused-derived fuels. The interesting thing being that the UK (via recycling firms) has to pay Germany to use the UK’s waste in generating energy for Germany. Sensible, right?

Now to the philosophical part of recycling and waste management. Starting with the issue of incinerators, the “Not in My Backyard” mindset is affecting waste management in a somewhat similar manner to how it affects renewable energy. In the case of renewable energy, many persons recognise the importance of having clean energy sources, but are unwilling to have such energy facilities in their neighbourhood. Similarly, people would sermonise about proper waste management and the need to recycle materials, but would be opposed to having a waste management facility near them. In addition to this is the culture of buying things that are not needed, just because a person has the funds or access to credit facilities. This relentless purchase of extraneous items ends up creating a mountain of waste that would have to be disposed somehow, somewhere, hopefully, not in a wicked dump in Africa.

Fuelling this massive purchase by consumers is the business philosophy of many manufacturers. For many manufacturers, the aim is not to sell durable products, but to sell products that have to be replaced, maybe annually. Hence, while say a 1990s washing machine may have been designed to last a generation, the present models are designed to need replacement in a short time, creating a chunk of plastic and metal that would require recycling or some other handling procedure. Only a paradigm shift from uncaring profiteering can change the status quo.

When I first touched my keyboard to start this article, I simply wanted to write about the Cawleys Recycling plant. I have ended up touching on more issues than I intended. The trip was an interesting one, giving my colleagues and I an opportunity to learn more about waste management. The main takeaway for me is that too much waste is being generated globally. Maybe a circular economy plus a little caring sense would be helpful.

Image Credit: lakelandgov.net

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