Recycling: Why is it so confusing?

Have you ever wondered why there is a completely different recycling system in North Tawton and Crediton or for that matter in Exeter and Newton St Cyres? It's confusing isn't it? Indeed one of the commonest questions we as Sustainable Crediton's Waste Action Group get asked is 'Why can they recycle all plastics at the doorstep in Exeter, whilst here in Mid Devon we can only doorstep recycle plastic milk bottles?' 

To see if we could find out some of the answers members of the  Waste Action Group recently took a trip to Exeter's Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) on the Marsh Barton Industrial Estate.

Exeter's MRF, one of the first to be built in the UK 10 years ago, is housed in a giant warehouse. All Exeter's recycling is delivered here by a fleet of large lorries that cover the whole of the city. It is emptied out into an enormous mountain with all the plastics, paper, cardboard, tins etc. mixed together. From there it is loaded by forklift onto the MRF machinery, a series of massive belts, lasers and magnets operated by 16 staff.

As the material moves along the belts, some components are separated out by the machinery and some by the staff handpicking them. The separated materials fall down chutes into dedicated bins where they are crushed and baled and then stored in the yard outside. The material is then sold to companies, mostly in the UK, who reuse it to create new products. We saw rows of neat bales of crushed steel cans, aluminium cans, paper, cardboard and different types of plastics all waiting to be collected.

Matt Hulland, who manages the facilty, explained 'We do not think of the material we receive here as waste but as a saleable commodity that just needs sorting. Currently the sum raised by selling the products we produce is sufficient to cover the cost of Exeter's entire waste collection system. Of course this helps to keep Council Tax down.'

So how does Exeter's system differ to here in Mid Devon? MDDC operates a system whereby the recycling is sorted at the kerbside. You will notice that the recycling truck that comes to your doorstep is smaller than one in Exeter and contains a series of compartments into which the staff sort the recycling as they go from house to house. To speed up this process the Council asks you to pre sort the recycling in your black box into its various types to help the operatives. Once the full trucks arrive at the Tiverton depot (near Tesco) the recycling is then baled straight away, ready for sale, with no extra work required.

Each system has its advantages and disadvantages of course. In Exeter food waste is not collected and glass must be taken to bottle banks, as both food and broken glass would be a hazard to the MRF machinery and the staff. Here in Mid Devon both these are collected at the doorstep. As they are both heavy, this means that our recycling rate, which is 49% and is based on weight not volume, looks better than that for Exeter. However people are becoming more and more aware of just how much plastic waste we produce now, which, because of its bulk, is currently not included in Mid Devon's system.

In total there are 9 different waste collection authorities in Devon and each has its own collection methods. North Tawton for instance is part of West Devon which has a different collection system again. We recognise that our county is very diverse in character and what suits a city system such as Exeter may not be suitable for a largely rural area like Mid Devon. Nevertheless we too feel it would be much simpler for us householders if the whole system was simplified and standardised.

We hope this article provides some assistance in cutting through the confusion. As we write MDDC are currently re-thinking Mid Devon's system as the current truck fleet must be retired shortly. The light on the horizon is that they are now seriously considering including mixed plastics in our doorstep recycling from October 2015. If this is happens, and with the co-operation of us all, our recycling rate could become one of the best in the UK. Now that would be something to celebrate!