Did you know 38% of the mountain of refuse at Panda’s huge Dublin facility is not recyclable and has to be searched by hand, says Caroline O’Doherty from the Irish Examiner!
AFTER a few moments inside one of the country’s largest recycling facilities, confusion sets in! Towering above is an 80-tonne mountain of mixed waste, with a tangle of torn plastic shopping bags and black sacks threading through it.
Mouldy food, toilet wipes, soggy cotton pads, aerosol cans, broken toys, old socks, worn shoes, ragged jumpers, cat poo, an iron, a lamp, a long, twisted, jagged metal strip, of the type used by carpet-layers, a car’s wing mirror, a burst basketball, and nappies — lots of nappies — cling to just a few square feet of the mountain (a few years ago, a dead labrador was found within the mountain).
The next few feet are much the same. And the next. And soon it’s clear that the whole mountain is riddled with rubbish.
This special report by the Irish Examiner titled “Failure of Irish households to recycle properly is a massive waste of time” is shared by Recycle IT in the hope of encouraging change at homes! You can read more below
But where are the contents of the green bins?
“This is it,” says Irish Packaging Recycling managing director Des Crinion, coiling the trailing cable of the iron as he speaks. “And it drives us doolally, every hour of every day.”
Undoubtedly, the Chinese have their own word for ‘doolally’, but, whatever it is, they were driven there, too.
The world’s largest importer of recyclables has had enough of the low-grade, poorly segregated and contaminated materials, which have been coming into its ports. It has shut the gates until further notice, maybe, even, forever.
Ireland is not alone in causing the problem or in suffering the consequences, but the action has put a spotlight on both our addiction to packaging and our less-than-impressive recycling practices.
At the IPR facility in Ballymount, Dublin, the green- bin collection from 300,000 homes provides ample illustration of the problems.
Des begins the tour of the 7,000 sq m depot in the tipping area, where the collection trucks add to a mountain that feeds 300 tonnes of waste into the operation every day.
The arrival of a large flock of seagulls, only briefly interrupting the toing and froing of crows and other scavengers, tells you what you don’t want to know: That despite the constant pleas to householders to only place clean, recyclable packaging in their green bin, the message is falling on apathetic ears.
A half-full tub of hummus tumbles down the mountainside. It might once have been tasty, dipped with the pizza crusts protruding from a torn black sack nearby — a sack it shares with one of those foil-lined bags used for taking away cooked chickens from supermarket deli counters.
The bag is bulky, so it seems likely the chicken carcass is inside. The seagulls look hopeful. Des picks out a filthy, two-litre plastic milk bottle and sighs.
“Here’s a lovely bottle,” he says, for he sees lovely in a different way to most. “Somebody has gone to the bother of washing it and squashing it and putting it in the green bin, and now its covered in bits of somebody else’s food and that will make it difficult to sort.”
He places it back in the pile, almost tenderly, with a look that says he hopes he makes it to the other side. There’s a long way to go.
“A lot of the big stuff is taken out here,” Des says. “The guys will pull out the mattresses, the bicycles, the wheelie bins, the shopping trolleys…..”
They missed the labrador on the day when someone decided it constituted recyclable material.
“That got picked up here,” says Liam Dunne, plant manager, as he continues the tour at the first stretch of the 1.3km of conveyor belt that carries the waste through the sorting process.
“Here” is where outsized pieces of cardboard, and other awkwardly sized or shaped objects, are caught. It is also, unfortunately, where they sometimes catch the machines.
Despite the sharp eyes and speedy hands of the pre-sorting crew, the belts can be brought to a halt by a fugitive plastic sheet, textiles, the baling wire that holds briquettes together, or electrical cables that get caught on cogs and jam the machines.
“Paper till-rolls and the transfer rolls that stickers come on are awful,” says Liam. “They’re like ribbon, running up and down every conveyor, and if it ends up in the plant, we have to get in, literally, with bread knives and cut it out.”
Videotapes used to be a big issue, too. Not only are they not recyclable, but, if they broke, the stringy tape would spill out like Spiderman’s web, entangling everything in its reach. Now, they only make an occasional appearance, but mental alarm bells ring just as loudly.
As he speaks, a mop head whizzes by, deftly extracted by a member of staff, followed by a sock, an aerosol can, a bag of garden waste, a sheet of polystyrene, a quarter of a sliced pan, several potatoes, and the ever-present nappies.
Des holds aloft a toilet brush. “It’s like the Generation Game,” he says.
And yet they’re not fazed or frustrated. Their main concern is danger.
“Anything that gets hot is a priority — a camping gas-cylinder, a laptop battery. Anything that could cause a fire hazard has to come out of there,” says Liam.
The next phase of the sorting is automated and, to the layperson, highly technical, although Liam says it is just a more sophisticated version of the plant that is used by agri-companies to sort products by size and type.
Currents of air are used to whoosh away paper, card, and plastic film on to separate conveyor belts, while whirling discs which measure size delve closer to sort flat items from three- dimensional objects. Other screens separate the lightweight paper from the larger, fibre or cardboard.
Overhead magnets pull out metal items and an eddy current shakes out the aluminium cans, which are high-value, although they make up just about 1% of the total waste here.
They also pull out Pringles crisp tubes and other interlopers, because, although they’re mainly cardboard, the bottoms are shiny metal.
It’s disconcerting to see an otherwise neatly packed, five-feet square bale of compressed aluminium cans ready for dispatch to a new life abroad, with a bright green tube of sour cream and onion strapped in for the ride.
“Composite packaging is a big problem,” says Liam. Blister packs of tablets are a particular bugbear. Plastic on one side, aluminium foil on the other, they might get picked up as metal or as plastic.
Either way, they are not recyclable and they are classified, worldwide, as medical waste, so if a customs officer thousands of miles away spots one during an inspection, the shipment gets turned away as fast as if said waste was someone’s extracted tonsils.
Window envelopes are another example of composites that cause grief. Predominantly paper, but with a plastic film window, they contaminate whichever bale they end up in.
Some of the best-known brands cause some of the biggest headaches. Big-name soft drinks may be popular choices in the supermarket aisle, but they have fewer fans here. Their bottles are often made of PET plastic, which is then enclosed in a wrapper made of LDPE. There’s no better way to confuse machines whose job it is to sort one from the other.
The machines are optical separators, which blast objects on the conveyor belts with light, gauge how it is reflected, and segregate the plastics accordingly. Like one of those electronic fly zappers, it hisses each time it hits the plastic it has been programmed to detect, prompting air nozzles beneath to blast the chosen object and eject it onto a dedicated belt.
A perforator punctures any plastic bottles that are not squashed, so any that contained liquid — there was at least one full water bottle beside the iron at the tipping floor — should have been manually extracted before then.
Broken glass and ‘fines’ — the too-nice name given to the small bits and bobs of debris that get shaken, blown, and tumbled loose from the rest of the waste — get filtered out through yet another, separate chute.
Somehow, despite all the various sorters, screeners, and separators, nappies still elude capture, thumbing their smelly noses at Liam and Des, as they watch them ascending another belt, having cleared yet another hurdle.
A final manual sort may save the day, but, inevitably, some sneak by, even here, and make it into the baler, usually mixed with paper. Sometimes, they’re visible and can be pulled out before loading.
Des removes one at the corner of a bale that had drawn his eye, because a bright-purple sachet of cat food and a red crisp bag also squeezed through into this particular collection.
Liam outlines the consequences.
“If there’s a nappy in the bale, it’s going on a six- to eight-week journey,” he says. “It passes through three different climates. It’s sweating. You can only imagine what it’s like when it gets to China.”
Wet paper and cardboard may seem small, but they mushroom with time and temperature.
“The damp paper seeps into the dry and if it’s nice and warm, you get fungus growing in the middle of the bale. Imagine what that’s like to open up,” says Des.
Clearly, some householders have no imaginations.
Nationally, according to Repak, green-bin contamination runs at 30% in urban areas, though it falls to 18% in rural areas.
But it’s not just parents who cause problems for the green-bin system. Adult incontinence pads frequently turn up and nursing homes and other care facilities are regular offenders.
“Those pastel-green and blue disposable gowns — the ones that look like paper and feel like paper?” Liam says. “They’re not paper.”
Areas where flats are rented by students are notorious. Yes, they’re our best and brightest and most well-educated, but Liam gives them a fat fail for waste-separation.
Apartments present another major challenge, because of the shared bin sheds.
“Wherever there’s sharing, there are problems. You get fly-tipping and people who do use the bins, but put the wrong stuff in them and then the whole thing is messed-up.
“You need estate-management companies to be really on the ball — to check that if the black bin is full before collection day, that people have somewhere to put their rubbish other than the green bin.”
The result of this failure to properly recycle at household level is more costly and time-consuming at commercial level than it should be.
The belts here run almost continuously, from 7am to midnight most days, but with frequent overtime required, and it is labour-intensive work.
Even with €3.2m worth of new and more precise optical screens due for installation here, during March and April, Liam doesn’t envisage full automation anytime soon.
“It’s very difficult to see a way out of the human element,” he says. “The optical separator will only see what you teach it to see and you can’t teach it to see everything, because you can’t anticipate what’s coming down the belt. How do you teach it to see a ball of hair from a hoover bag or a half-eaten sandwich?”
To read more and watch a video, get the full Irish Examiner special report here
Thanks to the Panda for tsharing and the Irish Examiner for writing and publishing.
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