Are you good at keeping secrets?
Well gather around as I’ve got a good ‘un.
Come closer. Come on, don’t be shy.
Don’t tell anyone will you?
It meant getting up at the crack of dawn, getting myself all dolled up and heading down to London for the second time in as many weeks.
My mission, ladies and gentlemen, was to infiltrate!
And the target was the WRAP conference, or rather its dissemination event, where experts would divulge important research and findings into the future of mixed plastics recycling.
The delegate list comprised decision-makers and stakeholders from sectors right across the waste stream, including packaging companies, consumer product manufacturers, retailers, local authorities, waste management companies, central government, industry researchers, consultancies, journalists and academics. There were some big guns and then there was……uh ummm… me!
Yep...Almost Mrs Average...a little consumer amongst the mass of production, retail and waste professionals. OK...I'm not that little...I am in fact 5'4", pretty average really!
How the heck did I go from being an innocent resident, signing up to St Edmundsbury's Zero Waste Week to attending a significant information dissemination event organised by the UK's NGO that is tasked with getting society to reduce waste and recycle more?
I’d love to tell the tale of how I sneaked in through the back window of the Bloomsbury-based hotel, darting carefully past the kitchen staff before ducking through the side of the conference room, where I lurked behind the floor-to-ceiling curtains…feeling nervous at being found out…like the little boy in Roald Dahl’s Witches, who was discovered and turned into a mouse.
But instead, I just sauntered through the main entrance and picked up my delegate's badge that said "The Rubbish Diet".
I wonder how many of the delegates looked at the list and thought "What on earth is The Rubbish Diet?"
I also wonder how many of those have now come over to have a peek...They've probably all got better things to do but for those who have made an effort, I'd just like to say a quick "hello", especially because I would love to know delegate's thoughts on yesterday's event (email address can be found in the side-bar).
You see, this post isn't really about me or my exaggerated account of playing with the big boys and girls, it's more about the future of mixed plastics, which as we've already seen, is something that concerns many consumers across the country, whether it's due to over-packaging, combination packaging, lack of collection or recyclables being processed in China.
It's about eliminating restrictions like this (and I don't mean the bit about consideration to neighbours)...
According to WRAP's research, the UK produces about 1.4 million tonnes of mixed plastic packaging waste per year. That's yogurt pots and margarine tubs to you and me, plus other things like food trays and salad bags. This amount is growing by 2-5% per year, which unless tackled soon will become a worsening problem.
Of course, there is the option of reducing packaging, but certain levels of packaging will always be needed and it is this that needs to be managed effectively and appropriately.
WRAP's team of experts unveiled in some detail the methodology and processes they used to test the financial and environmental feasibility of recycling mixed plastics. As a non-scientist, you can only begin to appreciate the complexities just from the different plastics that are banded about, such as PP, PE, PET, PS, PVS and PLA.
The recycling processes were also compared with the effects of more "traditional" methods of dealing with mixed plastics, such as landfill and burning. Consideration was given to concerns about whether the recycled products could be created without detriment to the environment, ensuring that quality was good enough to replace virgin resources and would provide sufficient added value.
Anyway, the good news for all those concerned with the amount of mixed plastic going to landfill, is that recycling has proven to be the best option.
Liz Goodwin, Wrap's CEO, sums up the positive results for recycling mixed plastics in the UK:
“This is the first time that we have been able to prove that recycling mixed plastics is not only possible, but cost-effective and makes good environmental sense. The amount of plastic packaging we see in our bins is frustrating, as there is currently nothing most of us can do about it. However, this new research is a first step towards getting that plastic out of the household bin and back in use. This will reduce the need for us to use large amounts of energy producing new plastics and the oil required in their content.”
Frustrated by the lack of local mixed plastic recycling facilities, I know someone who will be particularly pleased with the news. Yes fellow waste blogger Mrs Green. I bet she's doing a handsome dance in her kitchen right now.
However, what does all this really mean for consumers, who are the recyclers at the coal-face of waste?
One thing's for sure, it doesn't mean that Mrs Green and the rest of the UK residents will be able to recycle their food trays and yoghurt pots overnight.
There's the small issue of supply and demand and this is where I regret ditching my Economics A' level in favour of taking German.
Basically it all comes down to collection authorities creating the supply as well as industry generating the demand. Of course the "middle-men", MRF (Materials Recycling Facility) operators such as Veolia and Viridor must also play their own part in extending their sorting processes in such a way that provides economies of scale that are financially beneficial to themselves and the taxpayer.
At face value, it might seem a simple task of just sorting all the new plastics in the same way as dealing with the variants in plastic bottles.
But dig deeper and it becomes evident that unleashing mixed plastic recycling opportunities on society at large will likely lead to a whole new range of contaminates being bunged in the recycling bin. If MRFs can play their part effectively, householders far and wide will need to understand their plastics. So it's a good job that the research has taken into account potential contamination risks.
St Edmundsbury Borough Council has collected mixed plastics for recycling since around 2004 and Daniel Sage, St Edmundsbury's Strategy & Policy Manager for waste and recycling, demonstrated how effective the programme has been in householder take-up and at minimising contamination. At risk of looking like a groupie, here's a photo of Dan, on stage, sharing details of our local scheme.
Amongst other things, success has been down to effective communications to householders, with instructions placed on wheelie bins as well as a "yellow card" type warning system if incorrect materials have been placed in the recycling bins. I've certainly been on the receiving end of one of these, when I mistakenly put a carrier bag in the bin a few years ago!
I never did it again, especially as persistent offenders in our area receive a "red card" which means their bin isn't emptied.
Another highlight from yesterday's event was seeing Tesco's Head of Waste and Recycling in action, in the form of Sion Stansfield who stated that customers want Tesco to stop over-packaging, stop using mixed materials in packaging and to introduce consistent labelling.
Consquently Tesco's buyers are evaluating their product lines with packaging in mind, following five key principles:
- Fit for purpose
- Sustainable Materials
- Recyclable & Renewal
- Low Carbon Impact
Phew! It looks like we are getting somewhere, but perhaps not as fast as we'd like, especially when supermarkets are deemed to be falling behind local retailers and markets when it comes to reducing packaging.
However, what we may need now is some patience, while we wait for what happens next!
So what is going to happen next?
The good news is that WRAP is planning to carry out a large scale demonstration, supporting the creation of a UK mixed plastic recycling plant, capable of processing 40,000 tonnes per year.
Its business plan aims to have this available by 2011 and by 2018 it will increase facilities to manage 500,000 tonnes of mixed plastic recycling per year. Yes, I know that will meet about a third of the current usage figures, but I suppose this is what progress is about and at least it gives councils and manufacturers the opportunity to come online at a pace that can be managed.
Well, I think I managed to get away with being the cuckoo in the nest.
The information dissemination event was fascinating and I've come away with a whole new range of vocabulary, from balers to SRF, ballistic separators to flaking and the best one of all...co-mingling.
Yes co-mingling...and that's got nothing to do with rubbing shoulders with waste management aficionados. It's more to do with the wide range of materials that I bung in my recycling bin.
It was most definitely worth the trip and in my case I came away a more confident consumer than before I walked in.
I just wish I'd asked about toothbrushes!
Anyway, if you're after more details than just my waffle, information about WRAP's research can be found in their press release, issued yesterday. If you're interested in the background science, you can also download your copy of the research report Life Cycle Analysis of Management Options for Mixed Waste Plastics. Copies of the presentations from the event, together with the list of delegates, are now available at the WRAP website .
Oh, I nearly forgot. On my latest trip to London, I eventually managed to spot some recycling bins...indeed a scruffy array of big bins in the busy borough of Camden...
...but if you happen to be passing in the early hours of the morning or late at night, I'm afraid that you'll have to take your recycling back home with you, out of consideration for the neighbours!
I suppose that's the only time I'd advocate being quiet about recycling.