What happens to your recycling?

Coming from Wimbledon (as I do) I know all about dumps. Those plucky Wombles: ‘making good use of the things that they find – things that the everyday folks leave behind’. They have nothing on South Oxfordshire District Council, though, who have honed the art of scavenging to near-perfection, recycling 70% of waste, in the top two councils in the country.

In our home, we argue over waste: this piece of film-wrapping says ‘not recyclable’, does it mean it? How long should I slave over a plastic milk bottle to make it all shiny on the inside? To find out, a group of us accompanied Matt Beesley of the District Council to the Materials Recycling Facility (MRF) at Edmonton, London, where much of our waste goes.

Matt and the crew go to Edmonton


Matt Beesley ( Recycling Officer for South and Vale District Councils) and members of Sustainable Wantage, Sustainable Cholsey, Sandford Talking Shop, Chalgrove (CWaCS), and Catherine Somerville and Sue Roberts from Sustainable Wallingford  

Ghost in the Machine

The MRF was a masterpiece of engineering – a massive warehouse with conveyor belts zooming around in all directions, criss-crossing up, down and over; a scene straight from Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis. Not exactly the same of course. The workers wear merry orange boiler suits, not black and white.

The lorry dumps the mixed recycling and it gets a quick once-over to check it contains the right sort of things. Then, onto the first rumbling conveyor belt which shakes the heavy bottles off and down below, whilst loose paper is whisked off the top by rubbery rollers. Glass is moved away and smashed and crumbled; plastics are carried into the ‘Aladdins’ where light sensors for opacity and colour sort them into high or low density plastics.

Wheels within wheels

Down the chute













The machines do an amazing job, but the workers were something else! Wearing earplugs to protect them from the cacophonous noise, they were lined up each side of the conveyors, working full pelt to pull off all the wrongful items that had slipped through. I could (perhaps) sustain this kind of vigorous concentrated activity for 15 minutes before lying down for a rest. However, the predominantly Polish workers have opted for two 30 minute breaks in their 9-hour shift, and so keep up the whirling of arms and the concentrated sorting for two and a half hours at a stretch. Amazing!

The MRF produces potentially valuable paper, cardboard, plastic, and ground glass. The MRF may either charge or pay for our waste, depending on its value at the time of contract. The lowest grade plastic goes to China for metamorphosis into those plastic toys we all love; plastic milk bottles re-form themselves in Redcar and steel is re-fashioned in Wales.

No cleaning goes on. The only water is a fine mist to damp down the dust. There was a mild odour to the place and a very happy rat and a crow. The buyers clean and sterilise their new raw materials.

So, we learned enough to be able to sort out my domestic quarrels:

  • Polystyrene does not go in
  • Do not put nappies in – they really hate that!
  • WORST OF ALL? Video tape – it melts over the rollers and closes the plant down
  • Why do they reject my metal rods and plastic ducks? Because they are not can or jar shaped, nor are they plastic film, paper or cardboard
  • All plastic film including plastic bags (but not cling film) goes in – even if it says non-recyclable
  • Items just need a quick rinse – everything gets cleaned later

Sue Roberts