Broadcast From the Bins: What Happens to our Waste After it's Collected
Broadcast from the Bins 19th December:
Beyond the Bins
Every week, or fortnight, depending on where you live, millions of us put our bins out to be collected. But do you give a thought to what happens to it after the bin man has emptied it into the back of the wagon? Here in the UK, we throw a lot of waste away, around 400 million tonnes to be exact. Almost 30 million tonnes come from household waste. About 2/3 of this waste could be recycled, but a lot of it is just thrown away, along with the materials and the energy used to produce the product in the first place. So, how do we dispose of our rubbish?
The UK tends to produce more biodegradable waste than other European countries. 2/3 of the waste which ends up in landfill is biodegradable, and it causes methane to be released into the atmosphere as it breaks down. Some of the waste is used to produce energy, but it’s still not enough. Chemicals from the waste can also make their way into the soil and cause pollution.
There are concerns about the incineration of some items, such as plastic, because toxins are released into the atmosphere when it is burnt. However, the Environment Agency has stated that it does not pose a risk to health or cause excessive pollution because air pollution regulations are so stringent. Incineration can be used to produce energy, and it is thought of as being less damaging to the environment than landfill because it generates less greenhouse gases. Incineration is useful for waste which can’t be recycled.
Recycling means that less waste ends up in landfill, and materials and energy that would have been wasted can be saved. Items that can’t be collected by refuse collectors can be taken to a recycling facility. Much of our waste is shipped overseas, as economies like China need raw materials, and our processing plants can’t handle the amount of waste we produce. What happens then, to the materials we recycle?
Plastic is hard to recycle. It has to be sorted, then is broken down into flakes or pellets and made into new plastic or plastic items, such as traffic cones, toys, and garden furniture.
Glass is sorted and separated by colour. It is then crushed, melted, and made into new glass products such as bottles and jars. Recycled glass is used in road surfacing, unless it is green, which has a low value. This glass is usually used in construction. We still only recycle around 50% of the glass that we use, but over 35% of bottles and jars made in the UK are made of recycled glass.
Cans and aerosols
Aluminium drinks cans are most likely go to the big Novelis Recycling plant in Warrington which is the only aluminium can recycling plant in Europe. 2/3 of the 5 billion cans used in the UK are dumped, even though aluminium is very easy to recycle. Food cans are recyclable, but we send half of all the cans we use to landfill. A large industrial magnet sorts the cans then they are compressed and made into a metal sheet. The sheet metal is then sold to manufacturers who can make new cans and other items. Recycled metals can be used in fridges, machinery and in construction.
We recycle over half of the paper we use, here in the UK. We produce 6 million tonnes of paper every year, and import a further 6 million tonnes. Excess waste paper is exported. To reuse paper, it is turned into pulp and any ink and staples are removed. The pulp is dried and put on a reel. All UK newspapers are printed on recycled paper.
Food waste is heated, sterilised, then turned into compost for use in parks and gardens. This makes up most of the waste that is collected by local authorities.
Clothing and shoes
Materials are sorted then sent to charity or overseas. Some recyclable textiles are reused in the UK, and some are exported to countries such as China, who pay for recycled materials.
The government has a ‘waste hierarchy’, which lists waste disposal and management methods, from the most environmentally friendly to the least desirable. This can just as well apply to us. If we can’t recycle something, can we reuse it? We all have a part to play in reducing the amount of waste we throw away.
Prevention – reducing waste production (most environmentally friendly)
Reuse – finding a new use for items and raw materials
Recycle – making new products out of recovered materials
Energy recovery – creating energy from waste
Disposal – Sending waste to landfill (least environmentally friendly)
Images courtesy of WRAP UK