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Where Does Our Rubbish Go?

Updated Tuesday, 9th August 2005

As a popular actress and comedian, Helen Lederer has very little time to take recycling seriously. Like most of us she tends to open up a packet and throw it away with the rest of the rubbish. So Ever Wondered sent her out to discover what actually happens to the rubbish we so readily throw away

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Helen Lederer Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: BBC

First stop Cringle Dock, a waste transfer station…

Helen Lederer and Adam Read

Helen: Adam Read, you are a Waste Consultant, what do you do?

Adam Read: Well Helen, waste is a relatively new phenomenon. It wasn’t until about 1940 that we started to throw away materials. Now we’re looking at a much more complicated business

Helen: Right. So what’s going on here.

Adam Read: Well this machine collects five London borough’s waste and transfers it down the river by barge, this can amount to 1000 tons every day.

Helen: 1000 tons, and what kind of things are in it?

Adam Read: All sorts of materials. Let’s go and take a look.

Pile of rubbish

Helen: So what is rubbish?

Adam Read: When I’m advising the councils on recycling or waste management policies, I can use up to 192 different categories. So we aggregate to usually 30 main types, and today I’m going to be using six main categories.

Helen Lederer: Six main categories from my personal rubbish.

Adam Read: It’s very typical of the British dustbin. In here we have a big pile of newspapers, high degradable, perhaps 50 years in a landfill site.

Plastic bottles Plastic bags, bane of our life. Very difficult to process, the technology’s not quite there but if you bury it, it will take hundreds and hundreds of years before it’s decomposed. Textiles, not really a problem. Easy to re-use, easy to recycle, you can bury it, it will degrade.

Compost, your compost pile will pollute ground water in a landfill site as it rots. Best thing is compost it at home. Tins, Steel and aluminium cans. Lot of market value there, easy to recycle, you don’t want to put it in a hole in the ground because it’ll rust. Finally different coloured bottles and jars, easy to recycle, have been doing it for many years. Don’t want to bury it as it can take thousands of years to degrade. glass bottles

Helen: Thousands of years to degrade, two seconds to drink bottle of wine. What shall I do next?

Adam Read: Well, this is only the beginning of the cycle. You need to go and ask an expert about the processes.

If you would like to find out more how life has evolved in response to its environment then have a look at course S269 Earth and Life

Next stop a 25 year old rubbish landfill site to meet waste expert Dr Dominic Hogg…

Helen Lederer with Dominic Hogg

Helen: Now Dominic what actually is going on in this is site?

Dr. Dominic Hogg: Well we landfill about 82% of all UK municipal waste, so this is where all your stuff comes. The reason we’ve done this is that it’s cheap, but the fact that it’s cheap means that there’s no incentive to do other things with the materials like recycling and composting.

Landfill The other thing that’s going to happen over the next two decades is we’re going to be forced by European law to stop doing as much of this as we are at the moment, and we’re going to have to significantly change our waste management practices.

Helen: This feels a bit like The Long Good Friday where they get rid of unwanted people!!

Dr. Dominic Hogg: Yes this is where they burn the rubbish for energy. This deals with just under 10% of the UK municipal waste. If we’re going to move waste away from landfill we’ve got to do other things with it, this is one of the options

Aluminium Helen: Now what are the advantages of recycling?

Dr. Dominic Hogg: Well take a material like aluminium. Aluminium’s valuable in itself. This sort of material will fetch £500-£600 a ton. We produce a lot more clear glass than we would like. We’re actually importing a lot of green glass in the form of wine. Wine consumption’s going up, we’re actually now having difficulty finding markets for this, so we’re now exporting it as far abroad as Chile.

Helen Lederer Helen: Mm, well this smells quite interesting, what’s in it Dominic?

Dr. Dominic Hogg: Your garden waste. That’s been composted down to produce a soil improver that you can use on your garden. We think that 35-40% of municipal waste could be dealt with this way.


Helen Lederer Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: BBC Time for the third expert…

Robin Murray Helen: Can you tell me a little bit about the future of waste.

Robin Murray, Economist: Well we’ve come to a crossroads. 100 years ago we used to just throw the stuff out into the street. Next the London County Council told us we’ve got to have a dustbin and it’s going to be collected once a week.

Now we can’t do that any more, because of the landfill problems, so there are two directions open to us. One way is to go down the incineration and either burn the rubbish or to take the compost and work out the chemicals in a very high tech way. But the problem with that, is the stuff that comes out of the chimneys turn into ash and so on. The other route is here, which is the recycling route. If you took this newspaper for example, instead of it going into an incinerator it would go down to Kent, to the biggest recycling newsprint plant in Britain and would come back as the Sun probably about 19 days later. The same would be true of the bottles.

Helen with waste disposal experts Here we have the first mobile recycling cart in the world. This little cart runs on electricity, 50p a day, and it goes on the pavement. So it is very environmentally friendly, this is the future, the new rag and bone man of the 21st century.

The people who work with them have got to be trained, they have to have all the knowledge about the materials, they have to be able to talk and get the householders into recycling. If you do it like this you’re going to be able to recycle 80-90% of your waste which is what they’re doing in California and in Australia.

Helen: Do you think it’s going to catch on?

Robin Murray: Well it’s caught on here, because 85% of the people on this council estate are actually doing this every month.

Helen: Well it’s been a revelation being so close to rubbish, I’ve learnt about the processing, the science, and the politics, I’ve even read what the council have sent me and I know what day they come now. It’s a start isn’t it?

If you would like to find out more about recycling then here are a few suggestions.

Books You Can Read:

Britain Today: Environment, John Baines, Hodder Wayland; ISBN: 0750215372

Recycled Papers: The Essential Guide, Claudia G.Thompson, Cit Press; ISBN: 0262200899

Recycling and the Politics of Urban Waste, Matthew lardy, Earthscan; ISBN: 1853831689

Waste and Recycling, Craig Donnellan, Independence Educational Publishers; ISBN: 1861681283

Links You Can Surf:

Waste information

Environmental Yellow Pages for Great Britain

Also on this site : You can join Terry Hall as he tests his expectations of city life versus country life

If you think you might be interested in studying more about these subjects, find out what the Open University has to offer.

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