MRF Recycling Plant

The trash from a small part of one morning’s collection
Nathan Way, SE28
Don’t you wonder what happens to all your recycling once it goes into that blue-topped bin? It just doesn’t feel right that it all goes in one bin, unsorted. How do they do it? I had imagined a little team of Ooompa Loompas sorting it all out, then wondered whether they used convicts from Belmarsh (complete with stripy outfits and balls & chains around their ankles…) Someone told me that they shipped it all to China – you know the sort of rumours that go round.
Then I heard that you could put your name down to go on a tour around the MRF plant (Materials Recycling Facility) and – well – who could resist? It took over a year for my name to turn up on the list, but it really is worth doing.
It is actually like some alternate universe version of the chocolate factory – what Willy Wonka would have built if he was into waste management. As you go in, the are lorries bringing the contents of Greenwich’s blue bins – a gigantic mountain of the stuff every day. The sheer size of that mountain is extraordinary – and a sobering thought.
First of all it’s fed into a terrifying-looking machine called a bag-splitter. This is something out of a cartoon – giant revolving knives ripping and shredding the sacks that we put our stuff into and loosening the contents. The sort of thing that Roger Rabbit would be straining with hands, feet and ears to avoid being pushed into by Judge Doom.
It all then goes into what looks like a gigantic tumble dryer, a Trommel Screen – it’s full of gusts of air which blows out all the loose paper and light bits of plastic, sending the heavier stuff along on a conveyor belt past a massive magnet, which picks up all the ferrous metal – tin cans etc. The heavy stuff goes onto the Ballistic Separator (I forgot to say that all the machines have James Bond villain-type names) which sorts out aluminium – which is bounced off the magnet into another box. All that’s left is glass and plastic.
Next comes the Piercer-Crusher Unit (see what I mean about the names) which does exactly that – pierces the plastic and crushes the glass, which is sieved out into vats below. The plastic goes onto a 21st Century piece of kit which identifies densities of plastic using infra-red beams.
Anything that’s left over trundles along on a conveyor belt for the only humans in the place to check over manually. Frankly there’s not much left. Everything gets baled up and sold – which helps to keep the costs down. Another thing that keeps down rates is that the plant takes in recycling from other boroughs at commercial rates.
And what does it go to?
Cardboard – corrugated card for packaging
Newspaper – reused as newspaper
Other paper – recycled as – you’ve guessed it – paper
Metals – can be many things such as aeroplane and car parts
Glass – crushed and used for road building in South East London
Plastics – fleece fabric, CD cases, work surfaces and, in a pleasingly cyclical twist, wheelie bins
After you’ve handed in your hard hat and come back for a cup of tea and a biscuit the guy talks about all the new moves and things they’re planning and answers questions, more candidly than I had expected. We were given nice notebooks made out of recycled paper, pencils made out of old CDs and a splendid pencil sharpener in the shape of a wheelie bin which is the envy of all who see it.
I heartily recommend a visit – a most unusual day out – but utterly fascinating. You’ll have to wait – stick your name on the list and you will get there eventually. The place doesn’t smell, by the way – that’s mixed dry recyclables for you. It’s quite dusty – you come out wanting a shower – but not horrid.
You can put your name on the list by emailing

One Comment to “MRF Recycling Plant”

  1. Shredder says:

    Reading this i finally took a break from my job. I run a hardware store, and i get kinda stress throughout the day =) this page just gave me a few minutes of relax =] I tried to find a rss feed on your site, so that i could subscribe for some more. Ill be sure to come here more often from now on =)