Page last updated at 17:43 GMT, Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Talking rubbish: Is recycling working?

By David Shukman
Environment correspondent, BBC News

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Recycling - from bin to bulb

Dumped in landfill, or stockpiled unwanted: the fate of our recycling has triggered a wave of negative reports and doubts among the public.

The nagging question: is the effort of sorting our rubbish worth it?

In an effort to attempt to find an answer, I have travelled over the past few weeks to the less savoury corners of a world that most of us never see.

My journey took me from an ice-cold warehouse brimming with bundles of paper and plastic to conveyor belts laden with waste in Essex, to the stench of a vast shredding machine in Leicester.

Landfill site (Image: PA)
Experts all agree on one thing: landfill is a thing of the past

My impression is of a young industry, occasionally faltering, often unpopular, but emerging as a normal - and generally useful - part of our lives.

Conversations in a suburb of Durham, on a drizzly collection day, revealed mixed feelings among householders: supportive of the principle of recycling but irritated, even angry, at the idea that their efforts may not be doing any good.

The worst suspicion? That a lot of carefully sorted recycling ends up in landfill.

Some does get dumped, no question, but I'm told it's only a small percentage and usually because it's contaminated, which means that it has not been cleaned properly or it's the wrong stuff.

And some is stockpiled. Indeed, just up the road in an old television factory on the edge of Durham was a small mountain of papers, plastic and tin; huge bales of recycling towering towards the ceiling. Some newspapers were dated from last October or even September.

Late last year, local recycling contractor Greencycle had found that the usual market for its material, China, was suddenly closed, and prices were tumbling.

Week after week, as at dozens of other sites around the country, the firm was gathering more recycling but could not shift it, so stockpiling was the only option.

Only now is the stuff being moved.

So does this mean the system is failing? Well, talking to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the Environment Agency, government recycling agency Wrap, and several of the largest waste companies, it's clear the market slump has been a bad blow but the process as a whole is still functioning.

The long run

At the Shanks recycling centre in Barking, Essex, an intricate network of conveyor belts streamed out paper, plastic and metal.

Preparing piles of rubbish for recycling (Image: BBC)
Falling prices left many recycling firms with stockpiles of paper and plastic

Director Paul Dumpleton admitted that prices for material were poor but insisted that they were "in this for the long-term".

Companies like Shanks have invested huge sums in the machinery required for transporting and sorting recycling, and they expect to be busy with this task for decades.

So if it's a viable business for the contractors, or at least many of them, how do the economics stack up?

Wrap has figures ready to make the case:

• Recycled newsprint typically costs around 40 per tonne compared to fresh material at 450.

• Old plastic bottles cost 60 per tonne while raw plastic can cost 1,100.

That does not mean that in every part of the country all recycling makes financial sense.

Off the record, experts will admit that in the rush to meet targets for reducing landfill, the true costs are not always known.

That's particularly the case with the impact on greenhouse gases, one of the original points of recycling. The rotting mass of organic waste in landfill sites emits vast amounts of methane.

Wrap says recycling in 2006 saved 18 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions, the equivalent of taking five million cars off the road.

Muck and brass

But one of the industry's most respected figures is not convinced that a proper assessment has been done.

Escavator moving waste material (Image: BBC)
The recycling industry is continuing to grow as landfill sites reach capacity

Peter Jones, a former director of waste firm Biffa and now an adviser to Defra and the London councils, outlined his concerns.

"We haven't really in retrospect made sure that we're making the right decisions at the right time," he told me.

"Therefore, we've got to urgently get a grip on how this material is flowing through the system - whether we're actually adding to or reducing the overall impact in terms of global warming potential in this process."

He favours a thorough study of the financial and environmental costs and benefits of all the options, including making a big push into using waste as energy.

In Leicestershire, Biffa has a system for turning rubbish into electricity, via a process known as called anaerobic digestion.

Anything organic in the city's rubbish - old pizza boxes, food scraps, dirty paper - gets pulverised in a deafening, dark and smelly hall.

The resulting material - powdery and steaming - sits in giant vats for 18 days where it releases methane, which is trapped and then burned in generators.

It's not cheap but director David Savory forecasts that this represents a glimpse of the future.

Biffa will eventually switch from earning 40% of its revenue from landfill to making half its money from turning waste into power.

So rubbish is becoming a resource. And like any commodity, its value is volatile.

The conclusion? Financially, if you take a long view, it is worthwhile. Environmentally, it's more than likely to be positive.

Which leaves an ethical question: how to handle waste that we create? Well, everyone I met was agreed on one thing: just sticking it in the ground as landfill is a thing of the past.

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SEE ALSO
Councils 'shun recycling scheme'
21 Jan 09 |  UK Politics
Recycling 'too complex' for many
13 Sep 06 |  Science & Environment

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