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Where does my recycling go?

Posted on 09 August 2008

I’m reading a book at the moment called ‘Confessions of an Eco Sinner – Travels to find where my stuff comes from’ by Fred Pearce.

Confessions of an eco sinnerIt goes into everything from wedding rings to jeans, computer parts to green beans, and it’s a really interesting read as you follow the author on his journey around the world finding the human stories behind our stuff.

One of the bits that particularly caught my attention though was the section on recycling. It feels so virtuous putting the paper in the recycling box rather than chucking it in the bin (I hesitate every time I put something in the bin these days – asking myself if there’s anything else I can do with the item dangling over the waste abyss… or whether the god of recycling is about to strike me down!) but the book reveals (in a measured and sensible tone, not with any sense of anti-green glee) a number of recycling fiascos that had me questioning exactly where my stuff goes…

So I decided to email Worthing Council to find out, thus:

“I would be grateful if you could tell me what happens to the recycling collected in Worthing. We put everything in the same box (card, cans etc.) and it all appears to go into the same hole in the recycling van.

I have been told that if this is the case, it would be too labour intensive to sort it at the other end and all the recycling will simply be crushed up and used for roads or dams, for example, but not to be turned back into usable items (i.e. a bottle becoming another bottle, paper recycled into more paper) – is this correct?”

The response arrived just 2 days later:

“Dear Katie,

Initially all the recycling is taken to a bulking station in Lancing where it is loaded onto bulk transport. It is then taken to a sorting plant in Crayford, South East London where it is separated into constituent parts. I have toured the plant myself and can assure you that all the materials streams are separated fully using a combination of hand and mechanical sorting.

The plant we are using is only a temporary arrangement, as a new West Sussex facility is currently being built at Ford near Littlehampton. When it is operational it will be geared up for public visits so I would encourage you to take a look for yourself at the appropriate time. You won’t be disappointed – I found my trip to Crayford to be extremely interesting (and a little mesmerising!).

In terms of final reprocessing the material streams are sent far and wide:

• Mixed paper is going to a plant in Essex where it is turned into packaging and insulation
• Glass is used in the road building industry to create anti-skid surfacing
• Plastic bottles are sent to China where they are used to manufacture clothing and toys
• Steel is sent to South Wales where it is fed in with other steel scrap and turned into cars, electricity pylons etc
• Aluminium is sent to Warrington where it is used to make new drink cans

I hope this reassures you that you are making a difference!”

I have to say it has reassured me – at least a little – although my concerns about the glass were correct which is disappointing when there are companies such as ‘Green Glass’ crying out to re-use glass bottles. The China trip isn’t ideal either but if that’s where they’re going to use them I guess that’s the way it has to be… for now anyway.

And I’ll have to make sure I take that trip to the new recycling plant once it’s up and running.

I’d be really interested to get your thoughts on this though – am I being naive in trusting them?! Do you work in the industry? Do you have more insider information? What should we do to get bottles recycled into new bottles? Recycle your responses here!

Take care,

Katie
Ethical Weddings

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This post was written by:

Katie - who has written 40 posts on Green Girls Global Blog.

Katie is founder of online ethical wedding planner, Ethical Weddings, helping couples to plan the wedding of their dreams without compromising their values. Katie also coordinates ethical networking events in Brighton and has a keen interest in fair trade and ethical fashion.

11 Comments For This Post

  1. J says:

    I think the biggest hole in the recycling ‘cycle’ has to be the plastics. I read Garbage Land, by Elizabeth Royte and in that book she mentions that plastics all end up in China where they are not so efficiently broken down and recycled. They’re actually quite harmful as most of it is unusable and simply burned, releasing many toxins into the air and soil.

    I don’t mean to discourage you, I know I am one that is more interested in being aware than idealistic. If Royte’s description is accurate, then I’d just cut down on plastic consumption, period. And I have :)

  2. Clare says:

    Hi Kate,
    Great post.
    For me, it seems nuts to recycle glass bottles at all. When I lived in Germany, bottles were on a deposit system and you returned them to get your deposit back, whenever you did your shopping. They were then returned to the manufacturer for cleaning and reuse. Just like home-delivered milk bottles in the UK.
    Despite the arguments about transporting them, this is so much more energy efficient than full-blown recycling. And it almost eliminated plastic bottles from our shopping.
    For me, I wish recycling could be the last resort, with reducing and reusing being the priority! ;)

  3. Katie says:

    Hi Clare,

    Thanks for your comment. I completely agree – I’m sure something like that used to exist in the UK and then shops – and of course supermarkets – probably decided it was cheaper and more profitable not to offer this service and that was the end of that.

    I recently heard that The Body Shop had stopped offering their refill service (take back your old Body Shop shower gel container and get it refilled for a reduced price) which had been one of their original selling points :(

    Rather than sending out messages to their customers all the time telling us we should wash our clothes at 30 degrees and stop using so many plastic bags (that they’re STILL giving away like crazy – just stop stocking them!), it would be great if our shops/supermarkets could have a real reuse rethink and start providing these sorts of planet-friendly, customer-friendly services again… we can dream!

    Must stop ranting now and give a shout out for Be Unpackaged though, who are pursuing the ‘reuse’ policy with all their might! http://www.beunpackaged.com

    Katie

    p.s. I get my milk in bottles – makes me happy!

  4. Mrs Green says:

    This has inspired me – thank you. I’ve just written to my council to ask similar questions. As well as whether plastics recycling will be increased where I live.

    I produce as little waste as possible, but there are still alot of questions and the one thing I frequently forget to do is ASK the council about things and plans for the future.

    It seems your council are quite switched on and gave yo ua helpful reply. It will be interesting to compare notes!

  5. Katie says:

    Great post! It’s good to see some people out there are actually taking the time to find out what happens with their recycling. As for me, I live in an apartment that doesn’t participate in a recycling program, but luckily there is a recycling plant 1/2 mile down the street. What bothers me, however, is the wasted energy that goes into recycling these materials, rtansportation costs, etc. Especially for unnecessary items in the beginning, such as plastic water bottles. I’m with you and Clare: reduce, reuse, then recycle.

  6. MANGA-FU LTD says:

    Let’s recycle for better tomorrows.

  7. Mandy says:

    Just watched “Manufactured Landscapes” (been out for a while) and began to really questions the “environmental impacts” that go into recycling. I always felt that just by recycling in my little bins every week I was doing a great things. Now I am not so sure. Half of the stuff we recycle (especially computers) are being shipped overseas to China where substandard living is increased by the decomposition of our “recyclables”. I am really at a loss of words as how here I am supposed to be doing something “good” for my earth and my community while in actuality I am contributing the the decline in human welfare in less developed countries. What a catch 22

  8. Colin Friedlos says:

    Hi,
    I liked your article, it seems much of our recycling, with the excetion of metals, is fatally flawed, see this:

    http://www.new.facebook.com/group.php?gid=48099573467&ref=nf#/group.php?gid=25393973285

    I’d be grateful for you comments.

    Reduce YES, Reuse DEFINATELY YES, Recycle MOSTLY A CON TRICK

  9. hELLO says:

    I THINK U GUYS ROCK :)

  10. alanthewiz says:

    Hi there intruiged by this exchange and particlarly by the last post about recylcing being mostly a con trick – the link to facebook didn’t work for me so would be interested to know the basis of your statement hELLO.

  11. alanthewiz says:

    sorry that should have been addresed to Colin – oops!

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