Have you ever wanted to know what happens to your waste once it goes into the recycling bin?
Considering how long we spend separating our plastic bottles from our cardboard containers, it’s natural to wonder exactly where it all goes. Is anyone even keeping an eye on it?
Waste tracking is an important part of SunSkips’ day-to-day business and requires the meticulous documenting of all the comings and goings of rubbish, including waste transfer notes that need to be completed every time refuse exchanges hands.
But as you might imagine, the current system is somewhat fallible due to the large margin for human error and the inaccessibility of paper and PDF documents in real-time.
Advanced waste tracking technology is imminent (more on that later) but until then, it’s pretty hard for the average person to find out what happens to their recyclables.
Fortunately, one journalist’s curiosity got the better of him, so he decided to track some plastic waste after dropping it off at a supermarket collection point.
Here’s the full journey of a simple plastic bag that was recycled in London and the burning questions it uncovered along its way…
Bloomberg investigative reporter Kit Chelell slipped three digital trackers individually into a snack wrapper, a piece of clear film, and a plastic bag, before popping them all into the soft plastic collection at his local Tesco in London.
Soft plastic – which also includes crisp packets and salad bags – is notoriously difficult to recycle, so Tesco’s new initiative to collect them in-store was especially interesting to track.
Three to four days after the drop-off, the wrappers all started to move. The clear film one disappeared near the Thames pretty quickly for unknown reasons (the tracker could have been destroyed or lost in transit), while the other two headed east.
After passing through a Tesco logistics centre, both trackers reunited at Harwich International Port, where they were clearly destined to be sent abroad.
This isn’t especially surprising. While there are some domestic markets for cardboard, glass and metal in the UK, plastic often goes on a much longer journey due to the UK’s low demand for it and the larger number of facilities to process waste in greater Europe and beyond in Asia.
It’s usually much cheaper for companies to export abroad than it is to sell to domestic buyers, and definitely more cost-effective than paying landfill taxes. Foreign buyers that can process the waste are paid to take it, so it’s an attractive proposition for them too.
Chelell watched the trackers in the port for a few hours, eagerly awaiting a sign of where they were heading, but the devices had stopped pinging.
Just when it looked like the investigation was over, both trackers appeared once again – in the Netherlands.
Within 24 hours, the plastic pieces had moved off separately from the Netherlands and across Germany before finally settling at the same stop in Poland.
The recycling had arrived at a facility in Zielona Gora run by British recycling company Eurokey. With the trackers now at a standstill, Chelell felt compelled to dig a little deeper. He hopped on a flight and headed to the facility to find out what was going on with the plastic he had recycled back in London.
Chelell checked out the facility and everything appeared to be above board. But shortly after, the two trackers started moving yet again, prompting him to follow them to a small Polish town called Poniatowa.
The wrappers had ended up in the custody of Stella Pack, a company that can use soft plastics in their products, which include black rubbish bags. Furthermore, Stella Pack has an onsite incinerator to burn the plastic they can’t use as fuel, which provides heat and energy for the factory (SunSkips also sends soft plastics to be used for fuel, known as SRF (solid recovered fuels) or RDF (refuse-derived fuel)).
Chelell was content that his recycling had been put to good use and was ready to end the investigation. One of the trackers had gone offline, so it seemed likely it had either been processed or used for fuel.
But days later, the plastic bag tracker reappeared in an industrial estate in southern Turkey…
Having already returned home, Chelell hired a local journalist to check out the site. Further investigation revealed stacks of old plastic dumped with no clear purpose.
The journalist spoke to a man from IMO Plastik, who claimed he had imported the materials for recycling, but in a subsequent call, the business owner denied importing them and claimed to only purchase domestic waste, bringing the investigation to a messy, inconclusive end.
Poor waste management practices have plagued Turkey in recent years. A Greenpeace report revealed that plastic from British supermarkets including Tesco, Asda, Co-op, Aldi, Sainsbury’s, Lidl and Marks & Spencer had turned up in the area. Burnt plastic has been found dumped on roadsides, waterways, beaches, fields, near train tracks…
Greenpeace Mediterranean biodiversity projects lead Nihan Temiz Ataş branded Turkey’s waste importation as a “threat” to the country.
She said, “As this new evidence shows, plastic waste coming from the UK to Turkey is an environmental threat, not an economic opportunity.
“Uncontrolled imports of plastic waste do nothing but increase the problems that exist in Turkey’s own recycling system.”
The investigation was a great example of the value of waste tracking and how quickly it can flag up suspicious waste transfers.
It shines a light on a very complicated industry and a dire need for innovation in waste tracking technology, as well as for it to be rolled out in both the public and private sectors as soon as possible.
Further accusations were made in Bloomberg’s report and Tesco has since announced it is looking into an executive’s relationship with Eurokey Recycling.
A spokesperson for the supermarket chain told letsrecycle.com, “We take any allegation of this kind seriously and are investigating this fully.”
Defra (Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs) is actively researching smarter ways to track waste.
Advanced waste tracking technology will not only prevent waste from being sent to the far corners of the world without a purpose, but it will also aid in preventing domestic waste crimes like fly-tipping.
RFID (radio-frequency identification) is one such method that allows private waste management companies and authorities to know where waste is in real-time.
By tracking bins, authorities will be able to pinpoint any unusual activity, such as waste being diverted to unauthorised locations in real-time so they can take action faster.
Sensors on containers or vehicles not only track their whereabouts but can also send data regarding how full the bin is (in the case of public receptacles, for example), which makes for more efficient waste management.
Another proposed solution for simple waste tracking is to digitise the cumbersome paper and pdf records, allowing site workers to use QR codes to log consignments.
For companies like SunSkips, weighbridges might speak directly with digital software to eliminate human error and massively cut down on paper and clerical work.
SunSkips managing director Mat Stewart is keen for better waste tracking to be rolled out so people who abuse the current system can be held accountable.
“Waste management is adapting and changing in terms of the chain of custody,” he said.
“The government has started tracking waste digitally from domestic and commercial properties through its entire life cycle to make sure everything is going where it’s supposed to.”
With so many reports of corruption in waste management, it’s easy for people to worry that the waste they put so much effort into sorting actually goes where companies like Tesco say it will.
Tracking is the solution. Waste exports need to be watched a lot more closely to make sure every little piece of waste really does help, as the supermarket itself would say.
SunSkips is keen to adopt new technologies that aid in the proper tracking of waste to prevent unscrupulous fly-tipping and corruption in the industry once and for all.