Monday, 18 February 2013

A rubbish day out!

What was the highlight of our half term holiday last week?

A trip to the local landfill!

As part of the Slim Your Bin project we're taking part in, a tour was organised and we couldn't pass up the opportunity to find out where our waste and recycling goes once it has been emptied from our wheelie bins.

Emma Croft, Wiltshire Wildlife Trust, in front of
several hundred pounds worth of plastic bottles!

Led by Emma Croft, Wiltshire Wildlife Trust's Waste Minimisation Officer, we were able to see the innermost workings of the Hill's waste management site near Calne, and it was truly fascinating.

We started with a tour of the recycling operation. There were mountains of glass bottles, which confirmed glass as my favourite recyclable. That's not just because fine wine comes inside glass bottles. Historically it must be one of the earliest items to be reused and recycled and glass is virtually infinitely recyclable. With none of the toxicity concerns of plastic, it gets my vote all round.

The metal recycling was impressive. There's money in metal these days, and much care is given to sorting it correctly. Two staff at a conveyor belt, pick through the metal which arrives from the recycling lorries, getting rid of carrier bags and non-metals. One of the most spectacular sights to our easily impressed eyes was the large electro magnet which sorts the aluminium from the steel. The cans seem to come to life as they jump through the air! Again, aluminium is infinitely recyclable, and whilst I'm not a fan of fizzy drinks, it's a much more sensible use of resources to recycle it.

Similar care and attention is given to the cardboard, which is sorted by staff to make sure plastic packaging etc is removed before it is baled.

Newspaper, textiles and plastics are also collected at the site ready for the next stage of the recycling process. We didn't see much WEE (waste electricals not urine) but many of the larger appliances are refurbished and sold at low cost by local charities.

Once we'd toured the recycling area, it was onto the hard stuff.

Photo of capped landfill from Hills website

Sadly, in February the landfill site doesn't look as much like a Timotei advert as it does on the Hills website and we didn't have such good views of the Cherhill White Horse. But we did see the pumps which extract the methane from the capped landfill cells, just like in the picture. Electricity is produced from the waste methane and fed back into the national grid.

The whole site is vast, with capped landfill cells, areas where gravel and sand are extracted (which will make room for more rubbish), as well as the landfill itself. We couldn't get too close to where the rubbish was being deposited, so no shocking sights and smells to give the kids nightmares, but we got the message. What goes in the landfill stays in the landfill. Forever.

What did the tour teach us?

  • We're familiar with thinking about the history of our consumer purchases; did the person who made it get a fair wage? Was it doused in chemicals before it arrived in my kitchen? Did it have to use up valuable resources just to travel to my house? But the impact of our purchases after we have discarded them was made much clearer to us than our theoretical understanding. It's a hugely complex infrastructure and it's a money making business. In Wiltshire some of our recyclables are processed locally, but some travel northwards and some to Wales to be processed. The message, though, was clear. It will always be more energy and resource efficient to transport recyclables, even if it means shipping them across the globe (after all, throughout history raw materials have always journeyed around the world), than to dump them. The landfill should really be a last resort for the stuff that absolutely cannot be recycled. And on a personal level, seeing the people who handle my waste has made me rinse my cans out more thoroughly! Those people wear ear protectors against the machinery noise, but not nose protectors.
  • How soon could you expect to be reading a newspaper made from a newspaper you have recycled? Within 24 hours theoretically, but realistically, within a week, which is not bad going!
  • If Henry VIII had worn disposable nappies they'd still be visible in the landfill today!
  • Although it was heartening to see all the different materials that are recycled, Wiltshire's recycling rates currently only average 42%. Surely we can do better than that? This figure brought home the fact that there is no obligation for residents or businesses to recycle.
  • Although the methane is extracted from the landfill, turning it into electricity will still result in greenhouse gases being emitted. Biodegradable waste in landfill is a real problem.
  • Even though things like mobile phones and ipods can be refurbished and recycled, we need to consider the resources that go into making them in the first place, and the related environmental issues (eg lithium extraction for batteries). Treat these items with respect and look after them so that they last as long as possible before needing to be recycled.
  • We must buy items made from recycled materials to ensure there continues to be a demand for recyclables.
The tour has made us even more aware of our waste watching, and hopeful that by the end of Slim Your Bin we will have cut our waste that is destined for landfill to the very bare minimum.

Disclaimer: I haven't included too many facts and figures in this blog post, primarily because it was so freezing cold when we did the tour that it was too chilly to take notes, and my brain froze. I hope Emma will correct me if there are any gross inaccuracies!


  1. What an interesting day out! I had never thought of glass being a lot cleaner and less toxic to recycle than plastic. I like glass containers better, and tend to reuse all of the jars that come into my house for jam and relish and storage.

    When I was living in Greece a few years ago, we returned all of our beer bottles to the shop where we bought them for a 10c refund, then they were shipped back to the manufacturer, cleaned and refilled. I always thought that made much more sense than melting them down to make new bottles - and I wish they did that here.

  2. I have visited our local recycling center a couple of times for a tour and it sounds like a similar operation to yours. Actually, it is quite a large operation and you can drop off most anything from yard waste (they make mulch that they give away), to cloth, to bikes they fix, along with all of the traditional stuff. I too rinsed my things much better when I saw what the people had to go through to sort them. As for glass, where my mother lives, there is not market for recycling glass right now. It's too expensive to reprocess it, so they don't take it at her recycling center. So she saves it up and when we visit, we bring it back here where we can recycle it.

  3. Great post! Recycling of plastics and other reusable material is a great contributing factor towards a clean city. People don't realize the importance of plastics and dump these wastes at public places, but actually these plastic wastes can be reused to fabricate new and creative items. There are so many companies which provide plastic waste collection and recycling services so that these wastes can be reused in a proper manner.

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