Recycling Works

The Irish Times – Saturday, October 31, 2009

GREEN THINKING : ‘YOU GET ALL SORTS HERE. A while back there was a dead cat and the other week there was a cartridge full of bullets.”

Beside us, a conveyor belt of detritus, aluminium cans, plastic bottles, newspapers and household bills chunders relentlessly past. A team of workers picks out the non-recyclables (including cats and bullets) that have made it this far through the process, and places them in a separate bin. This is perhaps the calmest room in a warehouse filled with clanking and whirring at Greyhound Recycling’s Regional Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) at the Merrywell Industrial Estate in Ballymount, Dublin.

Every few minutes, trucks arrive at this warehouse, each laden with the contents of roughly 700 household green bins. Here, they unload their recyclable cargo into a huge (and surprisingly unsmelly) silo, where small mountains of plastic bottles, paper and packaging are waiting to be sorted. A large digger scoops up the material and feeds it into the maw of an enormous baling machine. The mixed and mashed waste products then shoot along conveyor belts, through whirring metallic sorters, and are scanned by optics and blown about by air to separate them into constituent piles of plastic bottles, metal cans or cardboard and paper.

These piles are then compressed into large blocks, where a team of three to four picks through the neat cubes of deconstructed detritus. Bales that have too many contaminants, and are not made up of one type of material, are sent back to the starting line to go through the process all over again.

What you put in your green bin in the Dublin area ends up in this storage area, moulded into neat blocks of what most people would class as rubbish, but which Greyhound Recycling sees as raw material.

“There’s a value in most of the materials and this gets treated by Enterprise Ireland as an export commodity,” says Ronan Gallagher, of Greyhound Recycling. “All this rubbish and waste, once it is processed, becomes a product which we sell abroad. Its value is determined by the market and the revenue is split between Greyhound and the local authorities.”

Greyhound was awarded the contract to operate the MRF site, which came into effect in January 2009. The facility is owned by the four Dublin local authorities: Dublin City Council, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, Fingal County Council and South Dublin County Council. Greyhound sells these blocks directly to manufacturers and factories, and refuses to use handling agents.

“As soon as you sell to an agent, you lose control over where the product goes, so you can’t rely on the reputation,” says Gallagher. “The reputation of Greyhound is built on environmental compliance. As soon as that is breached, it’s very difficult to claw that back.”

The material is sold to manufacturing sites here and abroad. Steel cans, aluminium, plastic bottles and Tetra Pak waste all find new uses with companies here. Indeed, as we are leaving the site, a truck arrives to collect plastic bales. “This is going to Cherry Drainage Pipes [in Dungannon, Co Tyrone]. They will grind it and make pipes from this material. It’s direct; it’s just going up the road. That’s the ideal situation,” says Gallagher.

The major export is mixed paper and cardboard, as there are no paper mills left in Ireland. “The only thing paper is processed for here is for winter straw beds for horses, otherwise it is going abroad,” says Gallagher.

The charge often levied is that any environmental benefits reaped from the recycling is negated by the harmful effects of transport and shipping. “The whole picture of recycling and reduction in materials needs to be looked at. You can’t look at it in isolation,” insists Gallagher. “Those ships are going back almost containerless or empty because they have come here with products that we want to buy.”

One of the key points is that this is not waste being sent abroad for disposal – this is a product that has been sold, and as such it has to be of a high quality. “At the point of entry, they look at the quality of the material and they are making sure that the companies aren’t backloading containers with rubbish and front-loading them with product just to get rid of the rubbish. We audit and deal direct with mills; there is no middle-man involved. The directors of the company visit them on a regular basis, and we’ve also had local authorities out to see the companies that are processing this waste.”

Even so, if this is useful material, would it not make sense to process it all here and create jobs in the country? “There are so many different waste streams that the infrastructure and final set-up would be very extensive,” says Gallagher. “For a private company, the return is probably not going to be seen for a long time. The volume coming out of Ireland wouldn’t justify the equipment and personnel. We would need to go to Europe to get the waste to bring it here to justify it.”

But surely, out of all these piles of waste and even given the stringent processing, some of the rubbish that goes into our green bins must find its way into the dreaded landfill?

“The global recycling rate for the contract is approximately 90 per cent, with the remaining 10 per cent designated as dross. Along with the Dublin local authorities, we’re working hard to reduce this rate further. Of the remaining 10 per cent, this is then processed by Greyhound at its Crag Avenue facility [a separate plant in Clondalkin] and more than 90 per cent is recovered as solid recovered fuel. Very, very little of the material goes to landfill.” Or roughly 1 per cent, according to these figures. This solid recovered fuel is sent to Lagan cement factory in Kinnegad, on the Co Westmeath and Co Meath border, where it is used to fire its kilns. “For every 2½ to three tonnes, it gives you the burn quality of about a tonne of coal. There’s cost saving for them and there is the obvious environmental saving. Some people would say that’s not much more than a ripple in the sea, but it’s the beginning of a new vision,” says Gallagher.

Part of this vision could be taking a fresh look at landfills, which might yet prove to be a source of raw materials. “About five years ago one of the directors reckoned that in 25 to 30 years we would be actually opening up landfill to extract the waste to do something with it. Even for the likes of solid recovered fuel, you have the prospect of doing something with waste.”

In the first nine months of this year, the MRF processed 51,883 tonnes of recyclable materials. Despite all the machinery and processing, Gallagher insists it is crucial that people segregate their rubbish properly at home.

“Cleaning items such as plastic bottles and containers, as well as food and drink cans and tins, before you deposit them in the bin is absolutely crucial.” Leaving packaging in supermarkets is also useful, as many of them have contracts with recycling companies such as Greyhound.

When it comes to bullets and dead cats, though, the green bin is not an option.