A few weeks ago I was invited by the wonderful Penny of @picmeupshuffle, who does a lot of work trying to improve recycling in Nottingham, to take a look around Nottingham's Enva plant to see exactly what goes on. She got a very enthusiastic yes from me! I have to say before this point I'd only really thought of putting stuff in the recycling, and then it getting made into new things, not actually the in between so I was in for somewhat of an adventure.

I learnt so much from my visit, and it was a little overwhelming in the best way possible. Everyone on the group visit was very enthusiastic about the environment so there were a lot of questions asked an answered. Evna's Nottingham plant deals with a variety of recyclable waste, both industrial and household, but we only had time to visit their household recycling plant and so this is all about what happens to your recycling after you put it in the bin. So be prepared for lots of facts about the plant, information on just how the sorting process works, and some top tips on how to recycle better!



Now I'm no expert on how big recycling plants tend to be, but this Enva plant seemed to be a pretty reasonable size. It manages waste from around 115,000 households in Nottingham as well as taking waste from other areas including the South of England and Mid Wales. It can process around 220 tonnes of material a day and runs 24/7 all year. 

It's hard to really imagine what 220 tonnes actually means, but it is an awful lot. Coming into the plant we were met with massive piles of unsorted material. The smell was not the nicest thing in the world but it was surprisingly bearable. The noise was probably the most overwhelming thing, a giant conveyor belt system with machines all around sorting all of this stuff, with people in between those sorting through bits by hand. It's like a giant conveyor system with people and machines at different parts of it, like nothing i'd ever really seen before. I mean the industrial nature of it makes sense but it does sort of instil in you this sense of awe, I mean it did for me anyway.




Material Categories:
Before I go onto talk about the process itself I think it's useful to understand what your recycling is actually sorted into. Otherwise the process gets a little confusing:

  1. Cardboard and Paper
    Cardboard and paper that is still intact is sorted as such
  2. Softmix
    Lower quality paper mix, it's often the scraps, and can have a very small amount of contamination to still be used
  3. Non Ferrous Metals
    These are non-magnetic metals, mainly aluminium
  4. Ferrous Metals
    Magnetic metals, mainly steel
  5. Plastics
    Mixed plastics are sent to other plants to be sorted into their graded categories.
  6. Glass
    This is all broken up during the process and is generally 100% recovered.
  7. Non-recyclables
    Anything that's none of the above gets put into the non-recyclable section.


 The Process:
So there's all these machines making lots of noise, and people working hard picking through things. But how does it actually all work? 
This is a very rough map of the plant shown to help explain the sorting process. It is not to scale and is drawn from memory.

Firstly, trucks full of recycling come to the main entrance of the plant and add their recycling to rubbish mountain (not the technical term)! At this point the material from rubbish mountain is put into a spiral hopper in smaller piles. The spiral hopper is sort of like an industrial funnel, and this puts the material onto the first conveyor belt towards the pre-pick.

At pre-pick there are people sorting through some of the bigger materials, taking bigger pieces of card and polythene off the belt as well as non-recyclable materials like brick, wood, and big bits of metal that could harm the machines, throwing them into their assigned bins. This is all happening fast, there was no room for the guys working there to stop and chat or slow down, they were rapidly picking out material and throwing it into the chutes next to them. I don't envy their jobs it looked like hard work, and I have a lot of respect for it. 

The material left on the conveyor belt makes it's way to a separator which does a three way split. This machine has a screen which lets certain material through:
Split 1: Broken glass falls through the screen
Split 2: 3D material works it's way to the bottom
Split 3: 2D material comes out of the top

Split 1:
The already broken glass falls through the screen in the machine, it's now sorted.

Split 2:
The 3D material goes off on its own belt, making it's way through a glass beaker so that any full glass bottles can be broken up, this means 100% of glass is recovered. The rest of the 3D material is carried on to an over band magnet. This sorts ferrous (magnetic) from non ferrous (not magnetic) materials, which are now sorted. The rest of the material goes into another machine called a 3D red waves which splits things yet again, this machine takes our the fibrous soft mix material like paper, ejects the plastic bottle mix (now sorted), and puts any of the unsorted material back into the plant to get a second go around. The machines aren't perfect so after the 3D red wave (before going back on the main conveyor) there are people again sorting through anything that the machine didn't pick out.

Split 3:
Back on the 2D line the material goes through a machine called a 2D Red wave. This was my favourite machine because you could actually see that was happening inside! This works with the power of air and ejects plastic bags while letting paper, soft mix, and card go through. It was pretty satisfying watching the plastic bags being *poof* ejected. Like the 3D red wave this machine isn't perfect and so after this machine there are people picking out the left over pieces of plastic and the cardboard to let the soft mix go through. 



What Happens Next?

The recyclables are sold onto companies which then further sort through respective materials. Soft mix goes to paper mills to be made back into notepads and toilet paper, plastics are sold to companies which further sort them based on grade before being made into something new, etc. etc. This plant is just there for sorting out the materials and selling them on, there's a whole load of completely different processes for different recyclable materials that happens after this point.

But around 20% of what Enva receive is not recyclable, what happens to this? Well this is actually make it into fuel, which is then sold to be used in cement making, so none of their material ends up in landfill. In this fuel process one and a half tonnes of waste fuel is equivalent to 1 tonne of fossil fuels so it helps to displace fossil fuels! Obviously us producing less waste is better but waste being used for fuel instead of being put into landfill does seem to be a better deal.

This isn't necessarily something that happens in every recycling plant, but it is what's going on in this one.


Some Recycling Facts and Top Tips
As I stated at the start of this post I learnt a lot in this visit, and so I am going to share some of my new knowledge with you here.

Black Plastic isn't recyclable, but this isn't because of it's low quality. It's actually because it's the same colour as the conveyor belts and so the machines can't see it.
The Conveyor belts in most recycling plants use optical scanners to pick out plastic to be sorted but then the plastic is the same colour as the belt they;re in trouble. You could say "Why don't they just change the belt colour" but then you'd have the same problem with another colour of plastic! The better solution is for companies to stop using black plastic, use a slightly different colour that the machines can pick up.

It's cheaper to move waste from the South of England and pay gate fees here in Nottingham than it is to just pay the gate fees at a recycling centre in the south of England.
This shocked me, especially because it's such a waste of energy transporting all of the stuff up north! But this Enva plant doesn't just get waste from Nottingham and part of that is the cost discrepancies across the Uk, and some of it is the lack of recycling plants in certain areas. Either way it's an issue that shouldn't be the case!


Now onto the tips...

  1. Put smaller pieces of aluminium together to make sure they're recycled
    Aluminium is separated using an electromagnetic current, but this only works if it is a certain weight. So any small pieces of aluminium can or foil will not be ejected and so won't be recycled. Save aluminium foil and make it into a large ball before recycling and put any small pieces of aluminium into a larger can to make sure it's recycled.
  2. Broken glass is fine!
    Lots of people seem to think you can't put broken glass in your recycling, but it's broken up in the process anyway and so is completely fine. If you're worried about the safety of you or other people handling your bins then you can but broken glass into larger glass jars which will be smashed and recycled together.
  3. Rinse Out Food containers
    Your containers don't have to be perfectly clean before being put into the recycling, and a bit of grease is fine, but anything with bits of food still left in them won't be recycled. So just make sure to give anything you're recycling a quick rinse under the tap to get solid bits of food off them before putting them in the recycling bin, otherwise they probably won't be recycled.
  4. Separate, separate, separate
    Mixed materials can't be recycled and are the enemy of a recycling plant so make sure you separate what you can before putting things into your bin. Take bottle tops off, separate non-recyclable plastic film from plastic tops, take apart any plastic and cardboard packaging you can. It doesn't take that long and ensures that everything you put in your green bin (or brown if you're in Notts) is recyclable.
  5. Bottle tops are recyclable
    Recently there seems to have been information going around that you can't recycle bottle tops, but at Enva it was completely fine. Just make sure that you separate bottle lid from bottle top before putting it into the recycling, as with all materials. This one you might want to check with your local authority. 

And that's about wraps it up for this Enva visit, a lot was learned and it really made me think a lot more about recycling. Of course I'm still going towards becoming more and more zero waste but the infrastructure for recycling is always going to be necessary so it's amazing to know how it works. The group of us who went on this trip are also hoping to go back and have a look around the industrial recycling plant here in the future so that may be a post sometime relatively soon.

Did you learn something new? Anything you know about recycling that you think could be helpful? Let me know in the comments.