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Thursday, 25 May, 2000, 14:49 GMT 15:49 UK
It's a dirty job...

Britons bin millions of tonnes of rubbish a year, yet there is but a clutch of companies prepared to fish the reusable materials from the used tea-bags and banana skins.

On Thursday, Environment Minister Michael Meacher urged householders and businesses in England and Wales to reduce, reuse and recycle waste.

Currently 83% of refuse goes into landfills, 9% goes up in smoke in incinerators, and just 8% is recycled, according to figures from the Department of the Environment, Transport and the regions.

At Masons Materials Recovery Facility and Landfill in Ipswich, workers separate out the materials that can be recycled from the unwanted refuse dumped by Suffolk householders and a growing number of businesses in East Anglia.

Ressurecting rubbish
Plastic bottles can be recycled into supermarket bags
Office paper into toilet paper
Wine bottles into industrial abrasives
Plastic bottles into gardening equipment
Aluminium cans into drinks cans
Baked beans tins into fridge parts

Municipal collectors bring in rubbish from throughout the region and dump it at the plant's tipping bay.

The rubbish bags are split, and the refuse is spilled onto conveyer belts for mechanical sorting.

It first goes through a small grate, which separates out the organic waste - fish heads, apple cores and other leftovers - from the recyclable materials.

Discarded steel and iron is sorted by an electromagnet, and aluminium cans by an eddy current separator.

The remaining refuse goes on to three conveyor belts for manual sorting.

"Each conveyor belt is manned by up to 24 people at a time - two of them, for example, will pick out the metals, or sort paper into different grades," says Dan Cooke of Viridor Waste Management, which runs the plant.

"The separated materials are then compacted, bailed up and sent to recycling plants. The plastics literally go on a slow boat to China for reprocessing."

When it opened in 1998, the plant took in the rubbish as is - householders did not separate their paper and plastics from grubby food scraps.

"This was the first plant of its kind in the UK and we learned some hard lessons. When the refuse is all mixed together, the level of contamination is too high.

"We had to ensure enough reusable material came in, so now the refuse comes in black and pink bags. Householders put their recyclable refuse into the pink bags, and we sort those bags first."

Reusing refuse

In line with the government's bid to reuse 40% of waste within a decade, recyclers are getting more imaginative about what can be made from the nation's discarded materials.

rubbish
Householders dump 27m tonnes of rubbish a year

But it is a buyer's market for recycled materials, says Mr Cooke.

"It's a volatile market, to say the least. That's why there hasn't been plants popping up all over the place. The paper processing market goes up and down like a lift."

While plastics and aluminium can be melted down and reused time and time again, the quality of paper drops each time the bales are brought into the recycling plant.

The fibres get shorter when paper is broken down, so today's office paper is tomorrow's newsprint is next week's toilet paper.

Viridor's pink recycling bags are made from reprocessed plastic bottles, as are most supermarket bags and bin liners.

Other plastics - there are at least six different types that are recycled - can be melted down for vehicle parts, water pipes, and even garden furniture.

The booming popularity of gardening has also opened up the market for gravel made from ground-up coloured glass.

Other uses for emptied jars and bottles include industrial abrasives and car windscreens.

And that discarded tin of baked beans could be reincarnated as a component in your new refrigerator or the handle on your car door.

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See also:

25 May 00 | UK Politics
Recycling levels 'pathetic' - Meacher
25 May 00 | Sci/Tech
What a waste of good rubbish
18 Aug 99 | Scotland
1m boost for recycling industry
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