7 of Our Most Commonly Asked Recycling Questions

Waste has been in the news a huge amount over the past year across areas such as the flood of support for reducing single use plastics and the ban on importing waste from multiple countries. Both have resulted in the general population and the private and public sectors rethinking planning around how to deal with the generation and disposal of goods. We have seen huge advancements in the attitudes around waste such as campaigns to ban single-use items, 5p charge for plastic bags and a ban on microbeads in cosmetic products.

The shift towards a greater awareness and involvement in our waste has meant that a large number of questions have been asked by our clients about what can and can’t be recycled. For this reason, we thought it may be beneficial to answer some of the most frequently asked questions on correct waste disposal and contamination.

How does waste fit into my ISO14001 Environmental Management System?

Almost all organisations produce waste as a result of their business operations, be it paper or old computers in an office, metal offcuts in a factory or concrete on a construction site. Your Environmental Management System will provide a framework to ensure that waste is controlled in the most efficient and with the least impact. While it does not specify one way to manage waste, integration with the standard can be seen across common processes such as:

  • Documentation (7.5 Documented Information)
  • Storage and labelling (6.1.3 Compliance Obligations, 8.2 Emergency Preparedness and Response)
  • Staff training (7.2 Competence)
  • Disposal (8.1 Operational Planning and Control)
  • Evaluating the impact of your waste (9.1 Monitoring, measurement, analysis and evaluation)

Why is it necessary to separate waste into different bins?

Each material has a different potential use after it is disposed of. In a situation where everything is collected together, this would require an intense amount of sorting in order to split items into different streams. This is extremely difficult, extremely expensive and not economically viable for most waste management companies. By splitting things at the source, then this will ensure less sorting is required, less contamination and ultimately more chance of things being diverted from landfill for recycling or reuse.

What does contaminated recycling mean and what constitutes something being contaminated?

Contamination refers to items entering the recycling stream that either do not belong there or items that make recyclable items unusable. Items that are placed in recycling bins are taken to be sorted and processed at a material recovery facility (MRF). Here a number of processes take place, both using machines and through human labour.

Does one wrong item in a recycling bin mean the whole bag will be sent to landfill?

Yes. Items that don’t belong in recycling streams such as certain types of plastic, food, nappies, metallic food wrappers can contaminate whole loads as they are too difficult to separate. This does depend on the specific waste contractor though, as it depends on their level of contamination that they accept into the sorting process. If this is an issue for you it is worthwile contacting your account manager or the organisation’s customer service for confirmation.

Are there extra costs associated with poor recycling?

Yes, some waste collection companies may charge a ‘contamination charge’ if you are consistently not following the correct procedures. This is again because of increased economic pressures due to the cost of separation combined with other factors. It has been reported that commodity prices have dropped significantly over the past few years. Market price for some materials such as steel, paper and cardboard falling by as much as 50%, combining with poor recycling rates and high rates of contamination.

From an environmental point of view, there is also a cost associated with sending more potentially recycled material to landfill. There are even reports in some areas of England that waste collectors are instructed to remove recycling sacks that are viewed as too contaminated to recycle while collecting. Residential collection in Milton Keynes is one example where one out of every five sacks were deemed too contaminated to recycle. As a result, all potentially recyclable items in these bags were unable to enter the sorting process and will end up in landfill or incinerated.

Why can’t disposable coffee cups be recycled?

Coffee cups are made up of paper and polyethylene film, which makes them difficult for traditional recycling facilities. However recently a number of specialist facilities have been developed around the UK that are able to recycle these into paper. Though this is a difficult process and can only be done with a specific coffee cup stream though making it quite difficult. It is much better to make use of the many discounts for bringing reusable cups to coffee shops.

How can my business improve our waste management?

The simplest way is considering the classic waste hierarchy of reduce, reuse and recycle. The most efficient way to improve your waste management is to reduce the amount being used in each stage of your supply chain. Useful tools such as systems thinking or life cycle analysis can be used to assess and target areas for improvement.

It is also important to make it easy for people to understand what is the best way to dispose of items and make it easy to do so. This can be as simple as correct signage explaining where to dispose of items correctly or having bins in convenient places for example food waste and glass bins in the kitchen or paper bins near printers.

If you are looking to investigate further into your waste management processes or improve how you integrate waste into your Environmental Management System then contact us at Green Element.

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