Behind every rubbish lorry is a sophisticated team of experts – Rachael Rowe spoke to Queen of the Bins, Cllr Laura Beddow
You dutifully throw your rubbish in your household bin, and put it out on the kerb on collection day. But have you ever wondered what happens to it? Where it goes once it has been collected? And what happens to all that diligent recycling after you’ve sorted glass from paper and other items?
There has recently been a campaign to encourage people to recycle more, so are we doing as much as we can or should?
How good is Dorset’s recycling?
Cllr Laura Beddow holds the portfolio for rubbish and recycling at Dorset Council. She earned credibility when she took on the role by training and working as a bin loader to see what happens on the front line when the lorries deal with kerbside collections.
‘In Dorset, 60 per cent of rubbish is recycled,’ she says. ‘We are the third-best council in the country, and we have just agreed to set increase our targets to 65 per cent.’
How much rubbish are we talking about? ‘Most people think the job ends with recycling in the green bins. But in Dorset, 50,000 tonnes of black-bagged household rubbish is taken to a Mechanical Biological Treatment (MBT) plant in Poole each year. Here, the mechanical part separates out some low-quality recycling and the biological stage composts the waste. So there’s a compost-like output, some low grade recycling and refuse derived fuel produced. They sort through the black bag rubbish for anything that can be taken out of landfill, like soft plastics, film and compostable items. A lot of it goes to ‘refuse derived fuel’ and because it’s refuse-derived we can’t call it recycling. But materials such as non-recyclable plastic, which would sit in landfill sites for hundreds of years, can instead be used in a helpful way to generate renewable heat and power. It means that in actual fact 95% of the rubbish avoids going to landfill here in Dorset.’
Does that mean we can just use black bags? ‘No, people still need to recycle! If everyone in Dorset was meticulous about how they recycle, and sorted their own waste properly, we could save a million pounds each year. So please do your best!’
Is it necessary to ensure containers like food packets, cans, bottles and jars are clean when they go into the recycling box?
Give them a quick rinse. They don’t need to be thoroughly cleaned, but ideally, there should be no food in your recycling bin.’
Is that true for any organic matter? What about compostable nappies?
‘That’s a difficult one because some nappy brands do say their products are compostable. They are usually not, and those which technically are will still take decades to break down. So for all sorts of reasons, we can’t recycle nappies. As a parent, I know that we all start with the best of intentions, but if you’re out and about and your baby has a spectacular nappy-related accident, you may well want to reach for a disposable! But it currently costs the council around £600,000 per year to send all used disposable nappies in Dorset for MBT, along with household rubbish.
‘Using reusable nappies is cheaper and better for the planet. One pack of disposable nappies per week for up to two and a half years can cost over £1,000 per child. Alternatively, using washable nappies can make you a saving of over £600 and they can be reused for subsequent children.’
What happens to the waste once it has been sorted – how much of it stays in the county?
‘Paper and card are sorted using chemical screening. It gets sent to Shotton Paper Mill on Deeside for reprocessing into paper goods. As for your food bin – all of that is sent to an anaerobic digester plant in Dorchester which breaks down matter without oxygen and turns it into biogas. It is used as electricity for businesses and also as fertiliser for farms.
‘Garden waste is composted and used in parks and farms in Dorset. Just five per cent of waste from Dorset is sent to landfill, and that goes to North Wales.’
So what happens to all the other items that are recycled?
‘Glass gets optically sorted for recycling using lasers. With cans, steel is separated from aluminium using a magnet, and again they get recycled. For plastics we use infrared technology so they can be sorted according to light intensity – they are then turned into pellets to be melted down and recycled.
A lot of strategic thinking goes on at Dorset Council on recycling waste. Laura says: ‘People think the rubbish collection is just the bin lorries, but behind the scenes is an entire team of environmental and climate experts working out how to reduce waste significantly. They are constantly looking at new things to do.
‘Dorset is often presumed to be a sleepy rural county, but we sit at the table with ministers in Westminster, advising them on what will work and what won’t. The government wants more crisp packet recycling at the kerbside, for example, but there are lots of reasons why that’s not practical, such as separating it on the trucks. We want a solution that works for Dorset – perhaps community recycling bins.’
How can people recycle more?
‘I think it’s about just doing your best. It’s surprising how much we can recycle. And it’s about education too. I bought nothing new in 2022, and I was astonished at how some friends were quite snooty about it. I’ve learned it’s about changing the mindset of people. And it’s also about using the waste hierarchy; we all know the reduce, reuse, recycle mantra. We can reduce quite simply by deciding whether we need something in the first place. Then reuse instead of throwing it away – I made fairy lights from tin cans for my wedding and I still have them. And then recycle.
‘As a team, we go to schools, communities, parish councils and housing associations to give talks on how to reduce waste. We are always happy to educate and to advise on any issues.
My husband calls me the Queen of Bins!