This load of Leeds rubbish is a global commodity

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HAVE you ever wondered what happens to that cardboard packaging or plastic bottle once you pop it into your green bin?

Chances are that the cardboard could soon be sitting in a shipping container, bound for a Chinese factory where, six weeks later, it will be re-made into cardboard, and used to pack up a TV or other product which could well be headed back this way,



It is equally possible the plastic bottle could be sent to a factory in this country, after being flaked into tiny pieces ready to be re-created.

Although the idea of recycling itself is well embedded in our everyday 21st century lives, it is probably quite hard for many of us to picture its processes.

However there is one place in Leeds which can help do just that.

H.W Martin in Beeston is a sorting factory for recyclable materials.

Every single item that you put in your green bin ends up here.

As well as 100 per cent of Leeds’s green bin materials, the plant also processes recyclables from various other council areas.

It’s a 24-hour a day, six day a week operation, employing around 70 pickers and a number of drivers.

Kim Auckland, local authority liaison manager at Martin’s, explains: “What we try to do is basically a loop, where we are recycling everything that comes in to us, and zero goes to landfill.

“All the material from the Leeds recycling bins comes here.

“We separate it back into the individual materials; card, paper, glass, cans, plastics and plastic film.

“From there we bale it up and then sell it on to customers.”

For the dedicated, supremely patient picking team, it’s not always a pleasant job.

Items found in the mass of ‘clean’ waste in the past have included an assortment of dead pets and even a pig’s head.

Potentially dangerous items like syringes are a common find, and there have been several instances of workers having to go to the casualty ward after being stabbed by an errant needle.

Despite strict safety criteria at the plant, some things just can’t be avoided - because the only things that come out of those green bins are what WE put in.

While the majority of materials that come in are recyclable, helping ensure a “quality product”, there are always “issues”, says Kim.

“Some people will put anything in the green bins; nappies, food waste, batteries.

“Whatever comes through, we try to get as much out of it as we can, and there’s a very small amount left at the end which goes to be shredded and replaces fossil fuels in cement kilns.

“We try to have a full circle.”

At Martin’s, 100 tonnes of green bin materials are received every day from Leeds homes alone. That’s up to 600 tonnes a week. The tonnage is likely to increase as more and more Leeds homes go onto alternate weekly green/black bin collections.

The sorting process itself is a multi-stage task.

Everything that comes in is first tipped from the bin wagon onto one side of the building.

It then goes through various processes and machines, including giant spinning drums, huge magnets and conveyor belts, to remove any stray glass, bottle tops and things that are harder to pick off.

The human sorters then handpick paper, plastic and card from the mounds of rubbish.

Loose paper is loaded onto a lorry and goes straight to the paper mills. The rest is scanned for lingering non-recyclable elements before being sent to ‘bulkers’ to be baled, with separate bales for each individual material.

Every time a potentially dangerous item is spotted, the machines have to stop.

“Somebody has to pick it out,” says Kim.

“Bearing in mind the horrible things that are coming through, we do need to reduce that, because obviously people are hand sorting this material.

“They wear protective gloves, but that doesn’t help with needles, for example.”

The majority of the materials sorted at Martin’s go to UK firms, who then ‘re-process’ them back into the original product.

However a large chunk of the market is abroad.

“We try to keep as much as we can in this country,” says Kim.

“The only thing that does go abroad would be cardboard.

“And that’s basically because everything in a cardboard box tends to come from China.”

Leeds is playing its part in a massive global trade - although it doesn’t ‘profit’ in the traditional sense.

Recycling is no longer just a concept or a social responsibility - it is a commodity, a resource and a multi-billion pound industry employing millions of people.

One recent report found that the UK recycling industry is now worth £23.3bn, and rising all the time. Further research found that the global recycling and waste management industry could be worth 300 million Euros (£240m) a year.

The recyclables resale trade works much like the stock market, with separate commodity markets, and the price of paper and aluminium going up and down all the time.

Industrial behemoths like China are, of course, leading the way.

“China, at one point, were taking all our cardboard,” says Kim.

“They still take a lot. But now the British markets have grown, and companies are setting up in the UK.”

Reflecting on the changing nature of what we term ‘rubbish’, Kim says: “It’s not rubbish, it’s a commodity and a resource.

“We want people to recycle, we want it to get re-used, but what gets re-used is driven by the market to a large extent.”

Susan Upton, chief officer for waste management at Leeds City Council, says Martin’s - and the city’s other contractors in the recycling processing chain - are a vital resource, and Leeds is particularly lucky to have the filter facility right on its doorstep.

She says using the plant offers “cost viable” recycling in a city that has a £40m annual spend on its overall waste management operation. We might not make any money from disposing of our rubbish this way, but we certainly save money from it, which is equally, if not more, profitable in the long-term.

“Our contractors separate it, and then make sure that quality material goes to a re-processor,” Susan says. “We are providing them with a secondary raw material. If they get good quality raw materials in, they can produce good quality products at the end.

“The biggest thing for us is that we can confidently say we are diverting materials from landfill, and we have got the audit trail which shows that these items have been recycled.”

She explains that while landfill costs the city £80 a tonne in tax, the comparable costs of re-processing are very small.

“We will pay them a small gate fee, and it’s a lot less than the landfill tax,” she says.

“They will then take the items that have been separated into the various markets, the commodity markets, where you have the price of paper and aluminium working just like a stock market.”

Although Martin’s sorts all of Leeds’s green bin waste, the city’s green bins don’t necessarily take everything the firm can sort.

For example, glass bottles in Leeds go into bottle banks rather than council recycling bins. Bosses say this is because of the contamination risk from “co-mingling” glass with other items, and the added cost the additional processing might entail.

“We are not here to try and recycle something that would be so expensive that we can’t sustain it,” says Susan.

“We do take a very sensible approach to recycling.”

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