Wednesday, 24 March 2010

A visit to the Council

I have been collecting mixed plastic packaging (ie., food trays, tubs, pots, etc. but not bottles, bags, expanded polystyrene or film) at home for the past two years and have tried throughout that time to contact the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead and ask them to recycle it.

In February, the local paper carried this story, with a picture of me glaring from a mountain of binbags full of our accumulated plastic. This led to an invitation to addresss the Council's Sustainability Panel, which met last night.

I had the honour of speaking before presentations from the Head of Packaging at each of our two largest retailers. My message was that many residents of the Royal Borough labour under the mistaken belief that their local authority recycles mixed plastics. These are therefore carefully cleaned and placed in the purple recycling boxes, along with bottles and cans, for kerbside collection by the council's contractor, Veolia, who then strip them OUT and send them to landfill!

Since 64% of our waste still goes to landfill, I said, it is the duty of the local authority to extract these valuable materials from our waste stream and recycle them. Pure picked polymers (ie., mixed plastic packaging SORTED into separate types) have a commercial value of £50 - £150 per Tonne.

I was saddened by the response from the council officers responsible for waste management, who said that reclaiming additional plastics from the waste stream would add greatly to the cost and would not make much difference to the tonnage going to landfill (because of the low density of plastic packaging) and also by the somewhat cynical allegation that many other authorities across the country are only 'pretending' to recycle these materials while actually burying, burning or exporting them to the developing world.

On the other hand, I was heartened to learn that the borough's contract for waste management is up for renewal in 2012 and that stringent environmental criteria could be included in the specifications for tender. My comments in response were that the Goverment's Waste and Recycling Action Programme (WRAP) had made the case for mixed plastics recycling and that RECOUP has developed comprehensive tools and analysis to enable more local authorities to do this in future.

When the senior packaging people from Tesco and Sainsbury addressed the Council, their presentations were inspiring, impactful, relevant and positive. It was a privilege to hear these thoughtful and informed contributions and this confirmed my view that retailers really are striving to green their operations because their customers expect this of them.

I was particularly moved by the forceful support for my position on post-consumer recycling of mixed plastics from one of these speakers - who told the Councillors that the myth of '36 types of plastic to sort' is an archaic hang-up from the past. There are just 4 or 5 high value polymers to sort and there are automated sorting facilities in operation around the country.

He went on to say that non-bottle PET is a high value material that can't be left to go to waste, that polypropylene (PP) is the next high value target for collection and that 'on-the-go' bottles and cans, thrown into street bins, are a problem that must be solved.

He said that his customers send him more letters about the availability of local recycling facilities than anything else and that bringback facilities in store car parks are destined to be replaced by kerbside collection as Councils increasingly fulfil their responsibility to recycle more of the domestic waste stream.

I was invited to visit the waste management officers in the coming weeks and am optimistic that, away from the political atmosphere of a Council panel, there is much that can be achieved and that there will be a shift in Council policy towards greater recycling in the coming years. Bring it on.

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