Green perspectives on Stockwood and Bristol. Mostly.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Follow-up on plastics recycling (or, er.... landfill?)

Thanks to Gea for the comment (reprinted below) on my earlier April 24 post about extending household plastics recycling in Bristol. I don't know if Gea lives in Bristol, but these are issues that destroy confidence in recycling (and, as Gea says, rip off the councils)

Gary Hopkins' unusual silence suggests that he's still busy promoting himself and other LibDems to the voters - so lets take up the issue direct with the council's contractors, Recresco at Avonmouth.

"I hope you can help with this, given Bristol's plans to extend household plastics recycling - and in the light of comments on my 'Stockwood Pete' blog about it.

It would be very helpful to know what happens to the plastic bottles etc collected from Bristol's household waste - both from the bring sites and from the planned kerbside collection pilot scheme.  Are they sorted (automatically or manually) back into the different plastics types for 'higher grade' recycling, or do they remain co-mingled, to be turned into some composite material?   Above all, are you confident that they cannot simply end up in landfill when the market presents that as the cheaper option?

Can I also ask whether the new PET film packaging, described in the same blog post, will be acceptable to your plastics processing plant?

Lets see what that brings.....

Here's Gea's post that prompts the enquiry......

Hello Pete,

I wanted to comment on the curb collection of plastics for recycling, with some 'caveates'.

Some years ago I worked as a waste broker for a waste management company that - amongst other things - sourced waste recycling contractors for a broad range of customers.

As an Environmental Management graduate, with decades of commitment to environmental sustainability, I tried to promote recycling as a first-order option to customers.

Lamentably, I found was that:

1) the statutory instrument introduced in the UK to implement the Council Directive on packaging and packaging waste [94/62/EC of 1994], used that now infamous "light [regulatory] touch" that effectively shirked legislative responsibility by applying 'market forces'.

The introduction of [Packaging Waste Recovery Notes (PRNs) and Packaging Waste Export Recovery Notes (PERNs)] created a complex trading system that makes it possible for waste producers to simply pass on the cost of their waste to the consumer and the environment, without affecting company or shareholders' profits, and so failing utterly to modify corporate behaviours.

2) a major obstacle to recycling packaging wastes is contamination. This can be anything, from labels to substances, even mud or grit. Plastics remanufacturers are few and far between; their operations managers made it clear they wanted:
a) 'known materials' (e.g. what type of plastic)
b) 'clean' and with no stickers, labels, tape or staples; nor soiled with food, dust or other contaminants
c) 'sorted and baled', that is compressed into easily handled bales of identical plastics.

This meant, though it was relatively easy to find Waste Management Companies that offered "recycling collection"- for which they charged a high schedule of fees - and that did not care how these were packaged, when I carried out inspections of their premises and environmental audits, it emerged that they all simply took the plastic wastes to landfill.

I contacted the DTI by email, to enquire as to what sanctions would be applied to 'Recyclers' who scammed customers and the public like this; their response was - I summarise from memory:

"Commingled plastics sorting requires expensive spectroscopic analysis equipment that would make most recycling operations uneconomic. We are not in the business of placing obstacles in the path of British industry, and so leave the regulation of the plastics recyclate markets to the experts: the remanufacturers and waste management companies. The value of the recyclate will be determined by the scarcity or abundance of the virgin raw materials."

In other words: when oil starts to run out and there are no alternatives, the industry will self-regulate and scramble for recyclate (probably by digging-up ancient, rotting landfills, in what is euphemistically termed "landfill mining").

What is sinister is that, years ago in Sheffield, there was an early plastics collection scheme - I found out about it from the DTI's own Warren Springs Laboratory - and they operated exactly the same scam! - At University I met a colleague who was a driver on one of the trucks that took the plastic to landfill! -.

How has all that changed?
Should we now believe that the plastics recyclate markets have been "greened" to the point that they invested in some kind of mass spectrometers and automatic sorting conveyor belt systems?
What guarantee do we have that this new initiative will not perpetrate the same, old scam?

Many thanks for your kind attention.



Anonymous said...

This is a subject that interests me. Is there a document anywhere that shows the route and final destinations of Bristols recycled materials?

If not, why not?

Pete Goodwin said...

Gary Hopkins answers now posted in this June 13th blog