The volume of household rubbish that is recycled in Lancashire could be doubled if every resident correctly separated their waste before binning it.
That is the message from the man responsible for dealing with more than 600,000 tonnes of material which is thrown out in the county every year.
As he and his team approach their busiest time, William Maxwell - Lancashire County Council’s waste service development manager - is appealing to householders to go the extra mile before they fill their bins over the Christmas and new year period.
While residents are recovering from the festivities, staff at the county’s two waste processing plants in Farington and Thornton will be attempting to recover for recycling the rubbish generated during the partying.
“Most people do it very conscientiously - out of a street of 50 houses, there might be just one or two which don’t,” explains William.
“But if the public were so conscientious that every single bit of recyclable material were pulled out of the general waste, that would bring us above the 50 percent recycling target which the government has set for local authorities next year.”
The county was already managing to recycle just over half of its rubbish back in 2015/16, but progress has since gone into reverse - and the figure for 2018/19 stood at 43.7 percent. Every council area except West Lancashire now has a lower recycling rate than it did five years ago.
Chorley and South Ribble are amongst the most ardent recyclers in Lancashire, both sitting in the top five areas. South Ribble has also seen one of the biggest drops in the country in the amount of waste per head of population - down 6.8 percent over the last 12 months.
But Preston is firmly in the lower half of the Lancashire recycling league table, while Ribble Valley is second from bottom.
A tour of the Farington plant reveals the two biggest roadblocks to a better recycling rate - the amount of recyclable material which is thrown into the general rubbish and the contamination of recyclable waste with unsuitable items.
William estimates that about five percent of Lancashire households are “super-recyclers”, with another five percent not making any effort at all. The remaining 90 percent, he says, are all “doing their bit”.
However, the results - like the rubbish - are mixed.
“Our single biggest challenge is trying to persuade people not to put plastic bags, plastic film or bubble wrap in their recycling - they are all types of plastic which we are not able to deal with,” William says.
“People use plastic bags in their kitchens to put the recycling in, but then don’t tip the contents into the bin - they put the whole bag in. When it arrives here tightly wrapped in the bag, it can end up masking the recyclable stuff inside.
“Then there is bubble wrap - which is increasing because of the growth of online shopping and the fact so much of it is used for packaging - and plastic film off things like ready meals.
“All it does is make it more difficult for us to find recyclable material and gums up the machinery. We do pull some stuff apart manually, because we don’t want a big proportion of what the public have sorted to be ending up in landfill anyway.”
It is estimated that if every piece of rubbish was properly sorted prior to disposal, Lancashire could double the 109,000 tonnes of recyclable material that is collected from kerbsides every year. The annual savings in the cost of sending rubbish unnecessarily to landfill could reach £2.6m.
Meanwhile, residents are being reminded that this is the first festive period when they will be able to recycle plastic pots, tubs and trays, after the common food packaging first began to be accepted in recycling bins back in October.
The region’s waste processing plants have undergone an overhaul to help them cope with the additional items - with new processes and pieces of kit introduced to generate extra capacity.
While it is too early to tell the impact of the changes on recycling rates, the system will be put to the test in the coming weeks as the plants receive their annual deluge of seasonal detritus.
“Just after Christmas is a very busy time for us,” says Caroline Melling, contracts manager at Lancashire Renewables, a joint venture between Lancashire County Council and Blackpool Council which deals with waste from every part of the county except Blackburn.
“We see a lot more cardboard at this time of year and glass also increases significantly in January straight after new year,” she adds.
William wants Lancashire’s residents to know that their recycling efforts are appreciated - and are being matched by those of the staff who separate the county’s recyclables into different types of material before selling them off to be turned into new products.
“We’re doing our best to make sure that we are trying to [extract] value from everything they have made an effort to recycle.
“But there is a hardcore minority of people who refuse to believe that we do anything with our waste other than just tip it all in the same hole in the ground.
“Nothing could be further from the truth.”
When the mixed recycling collected from across Lancashire arrives at Farington or Thornton, it goes through several stages of sortation before it is fully separated and ready to be sent off for a second lease of life.
In an attempt to free up space to accommodate the additional plastic material which is now collected - and also to reduce the level of recyclable material which is missed - the process has recently been redesigned.
It begins with all the waste being tipped into a machine called a trommel.
“That’s a big a vibrating drum which separates the glass from the rest of the rubbish - anything under 40mm in size will fall through,” explains Lancashire Renewables operations manager Colin Owens.
Glass accounts for 60 percent of the weight of material which passes through the processing plants. By removing the larger pieces of it at this early stage in the process, it is hoped that more recyclable plastic will be effectively recovered.
Contracts manager Caroline Melling adds: “It also opens the material up, so everything which is transported back into the system is better separated - and our machinery can spot things easier as it looks for the different plastic polymers.”
The remaining material then passes along hundreds of metres of conveyor belt. First, staff manually pick out anything they spot which is unsuitable. Then, the remaining waste passes through a series of magnets to separate metals and air jets to sort different types of plastic.
Until recently, that was where the process came to a stop. Anything which had not been identified as recyclable entered what is known as the rejects stream - which at times contained as many as one in five items which had arrived at the plant.
But since October, the rejects stream goes through secondary sorting to make sure as much suitable material as possible is picked out.
The plants are now on track to get below the national average reject rate of 12 percent and ultimately want to hit a target of no more than one in ten items being rejected.
The different plastic and metal types are then condensed into bales and collected by the 25 companies that are contracted to recycle them.
If residents have correctly sorted their rubbish at home, no paper or card should pass through the processing plants. The contents of the separate domestic recycling bins for those items is taken directly to a paper mill in Manchester - more than 35,000 tonnes of it every year.
Any material which cannot be recycled has to be sent either for incineration at facilities which convert waste into energy or to landfill - which, although rapidly reducing, remains the destination for just under 40 percent of Lancashire’s waste.
The government has told councils that they must be recycling half of their waste by next year, with the target rising in stages up to 65 percent by 2035.
YOUR CHRISTMAS-THEMED RECYCLING GUIDE
Waste service manager William Maxwell acknowledges that the rules on recycling can be confusing - not least for his own family.
“There are several bins in our kitchen - one of which is the ‘William will tell you’ bin,” he explains.
“My family put material in there that they’re not quite sure about - and every week I have a root around and see what should be going into the recycling what should be put in the residual [general] waste.”
But if you don’t have a William in your household, here is our handy guide to recycling - with some useful tips about the rubbish which is particularly common at this time of year.
Some plastic packaging bears numbers or letters in a small triangular logo. Lancashire currently recycles types 1 (PET), 2 (HDPE) and 5 (PP). Here are some examples of each, all of which should be rinsed clean before being put in the recycling:
Type 1 (PET) - clear or coloured bottles of soft drink or toiletries and trays for some pre-packed food.
Type 2 (HDPE) - softer plastic used for the likes of supermarket bottles of milk.
Type 5 (PP) - tubs and pots which contain foods like margarine, yoghurt or sweets.
The following plastics cannot currently be recycled in the county’s household waste.
Types 3 (PVC) and 4 (LDPE) - plastic film off ready meals and plastic carrier bags, although some supermarkets have bag-recycling facilities.
Type 6 (polystyrene) - widely-used packaging material, but which cannot easily be reformed.
Type 7 (blended) - includes milk and juice cartons which are complex mix of materials that are difficult to separate.
Hard plastics - children’s toys and similar items should not be put in doorstep recycling but can be taken to Lancashire’s household waste recycling centres and presented to staff for examination.
PAPER AND CARD - mostly recyclable - but wrapping paper with foil content is not. Residents are asked to carry out a “scrunch test” - if the paper stays scrunched into a ball, it can be recycled, but if it opens up again, it should be put in the general waste. Cards and paper containing glitter are also unsuitable for recycling. All cardboard should be flattened before being binned.
METAL - rinsed aluminium and other metal food and drink cans, along with aerosol containers, can all be recycled. Scrap metal should be taken to a household waste recycling centre and not put in a domestic bin.
GLASS - fully recyclable.
FOOD WASTE - not currently collected in Lancashire, but the government is expected to legislate to make such collections mandatory in the future.
THE WEIRD AND THE WOEFUL - TALES FROM THE TIP
Lancashire’s waste processing plants see plenty of unsuitable items passed off as recycling - some of them more objectionable than others.
Electrical items, plastic sheeting and hoses are amongst those items which the facilities are unable to deal with and can interfere with the sortation process,
But they pale into insignificance when compared to some of the things that turn up in the recycling at the tip.
“We often get used nappies wrapped in paper and at one point someone was regularly dumping horse manure in their recycling,” says Lancashire Renwables contracts manager Caroline Melling.
“Then there are the dead animals - we’ve had a deer and a goat.”
Operations manager Colin Owens adds: “I’ve seen snakes and even a donkey. For some people, anything that fits in the bin, goes in.”
According to waste service manager William Maxwell, there is a tendency for people to think that rubbish “just magically disappears when it goes in the back of the wagon”.
“It doesn’t, of course - it comes here and we have to sort through it and find a way of dealing with it.”
639,000 tonnes - Lancashire’s total household waste (excluding Blackburn), 2018/19
43.7 percent - proportion of Lancashire waste recycled or composted, 2018/19
39 percent - proportion of Lancashire waste sent to landfill, 2018/19
15 percent - proportion of Lancashire waste sent for incineration, some to generate energy, 2018/19
£900 per tonne - best price for non-ferrous metals, the most profitable recyclable material
£100 per tonne - cost of sending waste to landfill
LANCASHIRE RECYCLING LEAGUE
1. Fylde - 44.7 percent
2. West Lancs - 43.8 percent
3. Chorley - 43.3 percent
4. Wyre - 43.2 percent
5. South Ribble - 42.7 percent
6. Blackpool - 39.6 percent
7. Lancaster - 36.5 percent
8. Hyndburn - 33.8 percent
9. Burnley - 32.5 percent
10. Preston - 31.5 percent
= Rossendale - 31.5 percent
12. Pendle - 31.3 percent
13. Ribble Valley - 30.4 percent
14. Blackburn with Darwen - 28.5 percent