Wheels in motion - waste management workshop
A workshop on the trail of recyclable waste sparked dialogue between UK
local council officials, recycling industry professionals, designers and
processors in waste management. Michael Bennett reports
A swarm of seagulls swooped down over mounds of waste at the Veolia landfill in Rainham, UK, as the Made On A Bus rolling workshop wound its way into the site, carrying a group of UK local authority officials, product designers, professors in waste management and recycling professionals.
Vinod Mehroke, Manager of the site, which gets through around 1.5Mt tonnes of waste per year, talked the group through the landfill process, pointing out workers who were laying a geo-composite plastic film over a full field, ready to be turfed and handed over to the local council as a nature reserve. ‘The characterisation of waste going into landfill is changing,’ said Mehroke. ‘We are a service entity. You tell us what is out there and if we can engineer around it, then we will.’
The event, held on 28 September and run by the UK Materials Knowledge Transfer Network, was intended to give attendees a holistic picture of the recycling stream. After the Veolia site, the bus followed the same path that some 35,000t of plastic bottles take each year, to the Closed Loop Recycling plant in Dagenham.
Closed Loop Marketing Manager, Nick Cliffe, gave a tour of the plant and explained how the bales of bottles that sat on the tarmac outside get reconstituted and resold at a lower price than virgin plastic. As the group grabbed handfuls of the grey granules, Cliffe explained how the off-white hue was caused by contaminants in the bottle designs. He suggested that more collaboration is needed between designers, marketeers and manufacturers to enable efficient recycling and create demand for recyclate through products that contain such materials.
‘If you want to support the domestic recycling industry and stimulate this green economy, then the infrastructure to process the material needs to be built in concert with the phasing in and collection. Economies of scale are everything when it comes to plastics reprocessing, [especially] with fuel costs,’ he added.
Lack of coordination
Phil Robson, Waste and Recycling Manager of the London Borough of Westminster, claimed one of the hurdles to a coherent recycling policy is that local authorities operate in ‘silo’, which leads to a lack of standardisation.
He also questioned why firms design products that are not made from recyclate. ‘It is not one person’s fault. We’ve all got a role to play. I think there are many areas where local authorities and manufacturers can support the process and communicate with people.’
Bruno Stead, Recycling Officer for Kensington and Chelsea, pointed out that ‘People are tripping over themselves to comply with legislation but they need to have more of a long-term view. Setting targets can sometimes be a blunt instrument’.
He highlighted that many council officials feel far removed from the design process, and that they rarely got an opportunity to discuss with designers how the infrastructure needs to change. ‘You can’t recycle something without having a market for the end material, so the more you design in recycled materials, the more financially viable it is for the local authorities to collect it. It will gradually snowball.’
Designing from a distance
Similarly, the designers on board voiced a desire for more information about the rest of the process. They claimed there was a ‘knowledge lag’ between innovation and the latest recycled materials available.
‘Smaller design companies don’t have enough information at their fingertips,’ said Amanda Tatham, of Tatham Design, based in London. ‘We very rarely have a chance to have a discussion with people like technologists, scientists, and all those other areas which feed into what we do.’
A database that lists successful case studies of recycled material use was put forward as an idea. ‘But will [manufacturers] want to divulge that information?’ asked Dianne Davies of Dianne Davies Designs, also based in London. ‘I think designers, scientists and manufacturers have all got to start being much more open.’
Another common complaint was that although designers are keen to use recycled material, they are ultimately held at the whim of the manufacturers, with cost being a deciding factor.
‘A designer can say, “I want this to be made from recycled PET”, but if the numbers don’t add up [the manufacturers] won’t do it,’ says Alistair Russell of Bloom Design, also in London.Keith Freegard of Axion Polymers in Bramhall, a company that specialises in recycling polymers for re-use, confirmed this problem. He noted, ‘All too often I look at a new product and see opportunities that have been missed where a recycled material would have done the job just as well, and yet for some reason it hasn’t happened.’
Freegard gave the example of Japanese companies that make all new employees spend six months working in a recycling centre, so they understand the complexity of taking those products apart. ‘Don’t make something that makes waste out of waste, make something with added value,’ he advised.
As the day finished with a visit to Day Aggregates in Greenwich, where glass bottle waste is reused in aggregates, many delegates were perplexed by the complexity of the issues and the challenges that lay ahead. Nonetheless, they remained positive that change was feasible and that events such as this were vital for filling knowledge gaps.
They also acknowledged that it was necessary for firms such as Closed Loop and Axion Polymers to continue to turn a profit and stimulate the green commerce sector. ‘That’s the only way it is going to work.’ said Russell. ‘Money is always a driving factor.’