Recycling in Northumberland

In 2007 Northumberland County Council put in place a 28-year contract with SITA UK (now Suez) with the aim of recycling 92% of the household waste that was at that time sent to landfill. So, how’s that working out? Last week 12 of us visited the recycling facility operated by Suez at West Sleekburn, near to Ashington, to find out. Although not everyone’s idea of good use of a day off, the visit was fascinating and quite revelatory in some areas too. NCC has a video of the recycling facility that’s worth viewing, on its web-site at:

First, the stats: apparently 98% of the county’s municipal waste has now been diverted from landfill: 42% either recycled, composted or reused; the rest to energy-from waste (aka incineration) at Teesside. So, all good news then? Well, certainly an improvement on the position in 2007, but reliance on incineration, and continued need for land-filling, suggests that more needs to be done, particularly reducing the amount of the stuff that we create in the first place. Also, as our excellent hosts for the visit – Sheila from NCC and Richard from Suez – made clear, there is lots more that we as disposers of waste can do to better segregate our recyclables: of the around 50,000 tonnes of recycling-bin waste that arrives at West Sleekburn every year, up to 30% has to go to landfill because it shouldn’t have gone into a recycling bin in the first place (car engines and dead dogs were examples that they’ve seen at the facility!), or because it has become contaminated usually by food wastes (a real bug-bear for the plant operators – Richard, the Operations Manager, said that stopping food waste being put into the recycling bins would be top of his wish-list).

On the subject of what can and can’t go in the recycling bins, NCC maintains a list on its web-site and it is worth checking this because it does change:

News to me: any cardboard (including heavy corrugated cardboard) can now be placed into the recycling bin. Also we were told that food and drinks cans should not be crushed – non-crushed cans are easier to separate, apparently. We questioned why plastics recycling is limited to bottles only. This is because the vast majority of plastic bottles are high-grade class 1 (PET) or 2 (HDPE), whereas other products such as yoghurt pots, food trays etc are mixed or lower grade plastics, and also are more likely to be food-contaminated (the same reason why aluminium foil and trays can’t be recycled in Northumberland).

On glass recycling, Northumberland is acknowledged to be behind other councils in the UK in that there is no kerbside service. This is a simple matter of finance, but it was pointed out that many European countries also use a ‘bringsites’ approach (recycling bins in car parks etc).

Some wastes cannot currently be recycled or sent for incineration via NCC waste services, for example: sofas and mattresses; large tree-trunks; duvets and pillows. Due to size, these would currently be set for landfill.

The reality of recycling at this level is that: 1) the council needs to communicate a simple message for the public (i.e. specifying plastic bottles, rather than recycling classification number); and 2) as a commercial operation the recycler will inevitably focus on recycled products that have commercial value.

My overriding impressions of the visit to West Sleekburn: a stark reminder of the enormous amount of waste that we generate, even in a sparsely-populated county like Northumberland, and also of how little care some people disposing of waste appear to take in carrying out even very simple separation of recyclable and non-recyclable wastes. But on the up-side, it was remarkable to see the vast amounts of mixed and frankly pretty grotty-looking (and smelling) wastes separated into bales of recyclable steel, aluminium, plastics and paper.

For us as individuals, and collectively in TT and our communities, we obviously need to continue to strive to minimise waste generation, to repair and reuse items where possible, and to properly segregate wastes for recycling. But more than this: we need to help to educate and spread the message about the importance of waste prevention, minimisation and segregation. We should also consider what we might be able to do to deal with some of the ‘problem’ wastes, for example: are there ways of recycling or recovering wastes from sofas, mattresses? Could other grades of plastics, or metal foil, be collected locally and sent to a recycler outside of the NCC-Suez framework?

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