One evening I came up with a brilliant idea to visit a recycling plant. The only thing I didn’t know was whether any recycling plants were open to the public. After some googling I found only one in London advertising a forthcoming open-day event. Every year this recycling centre opens its doors to show people what happens to their waste. Adults and parents with children were invited to a fun general waste and recycling tour completely free of charge. All sounded super exciting so I decided to give it a go.
My interest in the environment, recycling and plastics didn’t come out of nowhere. I got involved in an environmental project at work looking to reduce plastic components in our current packaging. Although already a bit of the environmentalist, the project made me look at plastic pollution from another perspective. This also influenced my involvement in a couple of other environmental activities.
When I announced the idea to my husband. He said: ‘On your own, love’. And then added: ‘I can’t wait for your colleagues to ask about your weekend plans. Only someone like you can go to a recycling plant on a Saturday morning’. In fact my packaging project colleagues thought it was a great idea and wanted to hear all about it. The rest thought it was a crazy but original way to spend a weekend. Yet no one expressed any interest in joining me. I didn’t insist either because the life cycle of waste isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.
Saturday morning. I started getting cold feet. The weather was dreadful. Pouring rain with no end in sight. I deliberated for a while but there was no going back. Besides, I’d already told everyone about my plans and they were waiting to hear the details.
Overall It took me 40 minutes to get from Woolwich to the recycling centre. I checked in, listened to a quick health and safety briefing and headed towards the recycling plant. And here was the surprise – the unexpected and very long queue – despite everyone, including myself, thinking no one would turn up. I was celebrating inside. There are others who are keen to see rubbish travelling on the conveyor belt on a Saturday morning. Neither the rain nor the estimated two-hour wait put me off. Unexpectedly high turnout made it really difficult for the staff to efficiently organise the event. After 3 hours I finally went in. We were split up in three groups of 15. I was given a safety helmet, goggles and a yellow vest.
One of my colleagues suggested I took a peg with me in case it smelled. We laughed. No peg was actually needed. The subtle smell didn’t bother me at all. And so here’s what I saw.
The recycling waste comes into a big excavator-looking machine that tears the bags open and the waste starts travelling on the conveyor belt towards the first recycling equipment. Fast turning disks separate big cardboard pieces while small rubbish falls through and continues its journey. Glass and metals are the easiest to recycle and are in high demand. As the glass falls through it gets ground down ready for further recycling. Whilst metal is pulled up by a big magnet which then drops compressed cans, aerosols etc. on another conveyor belt.
There are a few rooms on site with waste pickers plucking out non-recyclables from a fast-moving conveyor belt. It’s hard work and you have to have a good eye for detail. After seeing this I realised the importance of putting the rubbish in the correct bin. Otherwise these people have to spend hours and hours sorting out your rubbish. Next goes the plastic separation machine. It has a sensor that targets plastics and blows them to the side which allows to carefully separate out the popular PET and HDPE plastics from the unwanted contaminants.
I really enjoyed the tour but felt like it was rushed through due to high volumes of visitors. Maybe I am just too much of a recycling buff so can never get enough of it. I would absolutely do the tour again. Besides, I’d try to find a longer and more detailed one to learn even more. At the moment very little information gets shared about different recycling options and the damaging effect of single-use plastic.
Such tours help to become confident disposing of recyclables and non-recyclables. It made me think twice of the way I live, shop, think and pushed me to reuse and recycle my waste.