If we are honest with ourselves most of us would admit to loving a site visit, who doesn’t like poking their noses into waste and bits of machinery? So, a day out of the office going around a WEEE treatment plant was always going to be an interesting one, chuck in some LARAC Scholars and a round table discussion with REPIC and Viridor and it was going to be a really interesting day indeed.
The visit was part of the 2016 Scholar programme. In the past, the Scholars got a free place at conference and that was it. With REPIC supporting the Scholars programme we now have additional activities that the Scholars can benefit from and engage with, and this site visit was one of them.
The plant is modern by treatment plant standards and deals with all forms of WEEE apart from lighting bulbs and tubes. It runs 24 hours a day and 7 days a week and some of the numbers that were thrown at us show you the sheer scale of their operations – and of the consumer society we live in. Between 11,000 and 15,000 fridges go through the plant each week. At that rate, you would think that all that happens is they get dismantled, crushed and baled. Not at all, the site produces 26 different materials for recycling, most of it to a very high grade and quality as well.
It also recycles over 85% of the materials it accepts, impressive when you consider the breadth of materials it does take in through the WEEE products people discard. It also far more heavily regulated than traditional MRFs and is dealing with various amounts and types of hazardous waste. When a waste manager is talking to you about the cryogenics plant they have within the building you realise just how high tech our industry can be. That is normally the sort of thing you expect in a hospital or research environment.
After the tour, we sat down for a roundtable discussion that covered a wide range of differing areas. We started high level and looked at the place of local authorities in the circular economy. The valid point was made that in today’s society products are mass manufactured which means they are produced in huge numbers but then come back sporadically in small numbers through the recycling system, making the economics of recycling vastly different to the economics of production.
We didn’t nail it down totally but all agreed councils had a vital role to play, especially in that interface with the consumer or householder. Not for the first time in the day communications was highlighted as a key issue in this area. This was even more prominent in the discussion on how to increase WEEE recycling levels, especially of small WEEEE. The point was raised that individuals don’t yet own the waste issue and it is easy to blame councils, retailers or producers for the problem rather than focus in on their own consumption habits.
Finally, we discussed gas bottles, which are becoming a real problem in processing plants. Plants are having to implement more onerous checks, for example one plant had one a gas bottle that was put in a washing machine so now must check in all washing machines. Seeing the video of the effect a gas bottle exploding in a plant has you could see why it is such an important issue to look at, cross industry. We all agreed that more checks need to be done at every stage of the process, from HWC onwards and that education on this will need to be undertaken, with operatives, with officers and of course with the public.
We may not have provided any ground-breaking solutions but there was plenty of thought provoking conversation and some great real life examples of what happens on eth ground in local authorities from the Scholars.
It had promised to be an interesting day and it turned out to be an informative and thought provoking one as well, and you can’t ask for much more than that. I can only add, I'm looking forward to meeting our new 2017 scholars at the LARAC Autumn conference and to some interesting visits with them in the ensuing year.