A recent report published on the Suffolk Recycles website has revealed that thousands of tonnes of Suffolk recycling ends up in other countries to be processed due to a lack of capacity in the UK.
While exporting recyclable waste abroad is nothing new, the report – created by Suffolk Waste Partnership – highlights that only 0.7% of recyclable card is processed in the UK, with the majority of it heading off to Vietnam, India, China and Indonesia. However, practically all metal and about two thirds of plastic is processed domestically.
The report also revealed that 17% of the county’s recycling waste can’t be processed due to contamination.
All this begs the question: why is so much Suffolk recycling ending up in other countries and should the UK be doing more to keep it at home?
And how can we reduce the amount of contaminated recycling that ends up at the local facility?
Here’s the breakdown of exactly how much Suffolk recycling is produced a year, where it ends up and why…
Once collected from kerbside recycling bins, Suffolk’s recycling is taken to the materials recycling facility (MRF) at Great Blakenham.
First, it needs to be separated and sorted, which is done with the help of a conveyor belt similar to the one at SunSkips’ Cambridge site.
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After the waste passes through a large rotating drum to get the cans and bottles out, more non-recyclable items are picked out by hand to remove as many contaminants as possible.
Each of these separated materials gets collected to be compacted and baled for transport. The bales then ship out to various production facilities, both domestically and around the world, for reprocessing into new materials.
By weight, 48% of Suffolk recycling is processed in the UK, with 52% being exported to other countries. During the 2019/2020 period, the following amounts were transported across the globe for repurposing.
Suffolk’s cardboard (6,856 tonnes of it) gets pulped in order to be reprocessed into packaging and other products.
Practically all of this is done abroad, with just over a quarter of Suffolk’s recycled cardboard going to Vietnam, another 23% to India, and the rest to China, Indonesia, Taiwan, Thailand, Pakistan and Turkey.
Just 0.7% of Suffolk’s cardboard recycling is processed domestically.
Despite the small amount of cardboard processing in the UK, a much higher percentage of paper recycling is managed at home.
More than 24,500 tonnes of paper was recycled in Suffolk during 2019/2020. The UK is the primary paper processor (29%), followed by India (27%) and Indonesia (17%).
Suffolk recycled more than 3,605 tonnes of cans in this period. The vast majority (96%) went to the UK for reproduction, with the balance making its way to Germany.
With so many household items coming in plastic bottles or containers, a whopping 8,635 tonnes of recycled plastic is not surprising. Just over 65% (5,628 tonnes) stayed in the UK for recycling, with Turkey, Romania and Germany and the Netherlands getting the rest.
While it might seem counter-intuitive to be shipping so much waste abroad, Suffolk Waste Partnership insists that the current recycling infrastructure in the UK makes exporting waste a much better bet for the environment than not recycling at all.
But with exports comes carbon emissions, which has its own detrimental effect on the environment.
One argument in favor of sending waste abroad is that it makes use of empty shipping containers from products landing in the UK, which would otherwise be sent back to international exporters with nothing inside.
Many of the receiving countries have a much higher need for recycled materials due to the manufacturing and packaging of products exported to the UK.
Countries like Switzerland have invested heavily in creating energy from waste, and so require a constant supply. However, Suffolk actually has had its own energy from waste facility since December 2014, which produces enough energy to power 40,000 homes.
In fact, SunSkips transfers sorted waste from the Cambridge site to an energy from waste facility and has plans to up its game with its own SRF (solid recovered fuel) refining facility in the next couple of years in order to become part of the solution to processing more waste in the UK.
Mat Stewart, SunSkips managing director, believes more needs to be done to keep Suffolk recycling at home.
He said, “Suffolk and the UK as a whole needs to be moving towards a circular economy where the waste we produce is recycled and made into new products domestically.
“With the advances in energy from waste, more industries will adopt SRF and the demand will grow.
“SunSkips waste is actually all refined here in England, and we’d like to see more of that happening to cut carbon emissions and get the most out of it to benefit the country.”
On top of the large quantities of recyclable materials being shipped out of the UK, the report revealed that a significant percentage of waste that should be recyclable ends up being contaminated.
Residents sometimes place items in their recycling that shouldn’t be there, such as black rubbish bags and food products. This has led to 17% of the county’s recycling being contaminated at great cost to the environment and the taxpayer.
It’s these contaminated items – including nappies – that need to be hand-picked from conveyor belts, which on top of creating logistical issues can also pose health and safety risks to workers.
But while a lot of packaging contains a recycling logo or instructions, they’re not always clear or even easy to find and can lead to residents giving up on their green habits quickly.
Here is a list of common household items that are contributing to the high contamination rate:
One of the most commonly used non-recyclables. Polystyrene is not biodegradable, and while certain facilities may accept it, it generally can’t be recycled.
It’s really best to avoid polystyrene products wherever possible.
Yes, bubble wrap is great fun to play with, but not quite so enjoyable for waste workers once it ends up at a recycling facility.
Bubble wrap is made from plastic that isn’t recyclable. There are many other uses for it, so it’s best to repurpose it rather than throw it away.
Carrier bags are not made from recyclable plastic. Trying to recycle them often has severe consequences: they are a huge hazard to marine life and take hundreds of years to break down.
Find a local solution for your bags (supermarkets often have containers for recycling bags).
Batteries cannot be recycled in your kerbside bin, but they can be taken to recycling sites to be properly processed.
A surprising one, but there are two main reasons why you shouldn’t recycle paper towels. Firstly, they’ve already been recycled and their fibres are too short for a second round.
Secondly, they often contain food particles and residue which can cause contamination in other recycling.
This is a well-known no-no when it comes to recycling or general waste. Needles and other medical waste should be properly disposed of as hazardous waste, never in your rubbish or recycling bin.
No, not the actual shed – we’re talking about all the paints, insecticides and paint thinners that can be found there! None of these should be recycled or just thrown away with your general waste (they can’t go in your skip either).
Most require special handling, so speak to SunSkips about how best to dispose of them.
On top of being careful about what you put in your recycling bins, it’s also important to empty, clean and dry packaging.
Recycling systems can reject perfectly good cans simply because they still contain food residue.
If you are unsure about whether an item is recyclable (or whether you can load it in a skip), you can always consult Suffolk Recycles, which has the most up-to-date information on the county’s recycling schemes.
But there are a few simple rules of thumb when deciding if something can be recycled:
If the answer is ‘yes’, then you either need to better prepare it for recycling (by cleaning, for example) or avoid putting it in with the recycling altogether.
Recycling is not an endless cycle. Materials are only recyclable a couple of times before you have to discard them due to the breakdown during the process.
While recycling is an important part of tackling the country’s waste problems, many experts are encouraging reusing and reducing as a first step.
While the UK certainly has a long way to go before becoming a major player in recycling, residents can affect change by reducing the amount of recycling that ends up in landfill due to contamination.
There are so many rules when it comes to recycling, it can sometimes feel a bit overwhelming, but even small changes to improve your recycling routines can make a big impact.
Reuse where you can, reduce if you’re able, and follow recycling guidelines as well as you can to make the job easier for Suffolk recycling workers, and the environment safer.
If you have any questions regarding how to get rid of specific waste in Suffolk, call us today on 01449 360 036 and speak to one of our team of friendly professionals.