Everything we put in our green recycling bins gets sent to the Materials Recycling Facility (MRF) at Alton. I was lucky enough to be part of a small group of borough councillors who had a guided visit of the MRF on Thursday. The Alton MRF handles an average of 300 tonnes of material a day, Monday to Friday. Another MRF at Portsmouth takes 200 tonnes a day. Between them they process all the household recyclables from Hampshire.
Even at 80,000 tonnes a year, the Alton MRF is running at two thirds its potential capacity, so it could easily handle more if Eastleigh (and other councils) could collect it. Unfortunately although it is adjacent to a railway line, all those 80,000 tonnes arrive and leave by road.
The main job there is to separate the material into recyclable categories – newspaper and pamphlets, two grades of mixed paper / cardboard, plastics, ferrous cans and non-ferrous (aluminium) cans. This is done by a variety of processes. Some is simply sorted by size; jets of air blow plastic bottles one way while heavier items continue on the conveyor belts; magnets extract the ferrous cans, while a different process extracts the aluminium; computers and optical scanners identify some categories; and at the beginning and end of the process there are human beings providing quality control. At the end of the process the materials are loaded onto lorries for transportation to specialist recycling facilities.
Up to 15% of the incoming material cannot be sorted and ends up being converted to electricity at one of the county’s incinerators or ERFs (energy recovery facilities). Some of this is stuff that should not have been in the green bins in the first place (plastics other then plastic bottles, for instance), but some is recyclable material that is sorted out at an early stage because of its size – small pieces of paper and cardboard, shredded paper, can lids, and even some crushed aluminium cans.
The operators are planning to put in new machinery to try and trap more of these small items, but in the meantime there are some things we can all do to ensure that more of our material is recycled and not incinerated. If you have shredded paper, or small pieces of paper and cardboard, stuff it into something like a cereal carton. The carton will carry it through the entire process. Put tin lids back into the tin and squeeze the tin to hold the lid inside. And don’t forget that aerosols can now go into the green bin.
I can now picture what 100 tonnes of newspaper and magazines look like, and the most striking impression was just the scale of the operation. If somebody tries to tell me that the black and green bins all end up at the same place, I have seen with my own eyes that that is untrue!