It’s easier than ever to do your bit for the environment by living a more sustainable lifestyle in Cardiff these days.
I recently had the pleasure of visiting Lamby Way’s recycling plant, all in the name of curiosity. My interest in rubbish all started when I had the pleasure of meeting Sophie Rae of Ripple, the zero-waste shop in Roath.
You only have to open a newspaper or glance at social media right now to read something about the evils of plastic waste, in particular single-use plastic. Sophie gave me some depressing facts and stats, which I’ll share with you because they’re quite an eye-opener.
Ninety-one per cent of plastic waste isn’t recycled. I’m not sure who counted all these but there are a trillion plastic bags, 480 billion plastic bottles, and 8.5 billion plastic straws used worldwide every year. In the UK, we throw away 2.5 billion disposable coffee cups each year. Only one in 400 is recycled.
Globally just 14 per cent of plastic packaging is recycled, and a third ends up in the environment, much of it in vast stretches of ‘plastic soup’ in our oceans.
The largest proportion – a third – of plastic litter comes in the form of plastic bottles, and production of these is forecast to grow globally by 20 per cent by 2021.
Around the world action is being taken, however. Last year Costa Rica pledged to ban singe-use plastic by 2021, and in June it was announced that India is to do the same by 2022.
But what, I wondered, have I done to create the problem? I mean, I don’t litter – like many of you, I even pick up other people’s litter on occasion – and I recycle as much as possible. I even own a reusable coffee cup.
I assumed I was part of the solution rather than the problem. But it’s not the case. It’s not enough. We all have a collective responsibility to help limit our usage of single-use plastics.
“Single-use plastics in terms of volume is probably the biggest type of litter we encounter,” Dave King, a founder of Cardiff Rivers Group, tells me. “By buying single-use products you are helping create the demand for this type of packaging. By switching to non-plastic or recycled packaging that can either be reused, recycled or composted you are switching that demand and helping create a market for much more sustainable products.”
Local clean-up heroes, the Cardiff Rivers Group, know all about the scourge of plastic detritus, which is having a negative impact right here in Cardiff.
Over their 14 clean-up events so far this year at riverbanks as well as other natural areas like Splott ‘beach’ and parts of Cardiff Bay, they have produced 299 sacks of plastic alone.
Down Lamby Way
It was of course my privilege to visit the Materials Recycling Facility (MRF), to use its official title. After all, the Council-owned site, which opened last summer, is “one of the best in Europe” according to Councillor Michael Michael, Cabinet Member for Clean Streets, Recycling and Environment.
In part due to the high tax applied to it, Cardiff now has a zero landfill policy. So nothing you throw away in Cardiff now ends up in landfill. That’s pretty good to know.
Cardiff currently processes 42,000 tonnes of green-bagged recycling waste every year. What can’t be recycled goes to the Viridor plant (the big ski slope-like building in the Bay) which burns it to create electricity (enough to power 50,000 homes) and returns 22% of the waste in the form of ash which can be used in construction.
Inside the huge sorting plant, it’s an eye-opening (and nose-closing) experience standing next to such a mountain of green bag waste. It’s physically intimidating, actually. There’s just so much of it – and this is just what came in the last few days.
We watched as a lorry deposited green bags from Danescourt and Radyr. Of their contents, 87% will be recycled, which is to say it will be sorted at Lamby Way so that it can be sold on for the best price the Council can get to paper mills and other manufacturers. The other 13% is non-recyclable rubbish that shouldn’t have been put in the green bags in the first place.
Where there’s muck…
Twenty-three people work inside the processing plant. Staffing the fast-running conveyor belts and sorting the rubbish is dirty, smelly, loud, hot and monotonous work. I suddenly feel very guilty for every item I’ve ever placed in the recycling half thinking it probably doesn’t belong in there. But sadly I’m far from the only one. Dirty nappies, bags of dog poo – you name it – it’s frequently in there, and not only is this highly unpleasant for the people who have to sift through it by hand, but it contaminates whole loads of materials that would have had worth.
You can tell which area the recycling’s from by the kinds of products and reading materials, but even in more affluent areas where there is generally greater adherence to recycling rules up to 40% of bags can contain incorrect items.
“It’s part of changing people’s mind set about looking after their city,” says Matt Wakelam, the council’s head of infrastructure and operations. “Just 150 staff in Lamby Way can’t solve the city’s waste problems. We need to work with people to ensure we can use our rubbish to make money because these items do have value.”
Last summer a new weapon in the Council’s fight to sort the contents of green bags was commissioned. The TOMRA auto-sorter is a £650,000 piece of kit that uses something called a spectrometer scanner to sort between any items you program it to identify.
It’s currently sorting between High Density PolyEthylene (HDPE) items, such as milk bottles and yoghurt cartons, which have a high value (currently around £460 per tonne), and lower quality mixed plastics, and also paper (which are eventually sorted into three grades).
We see the conveyor belt where seven agency staff worked is now unmanned, their work now done in a fraction of the time by the TOMRA machine’s sensors and jets of air. Martin Williams, sometime tour guide and Council Recycling Manager says he’s “really, really pleased with how it’s working”.
And he needs it to be working well. In short, the better the grade of rubbish, the more you can sell it for, but if it’s not sorted properly and too many lower quality items are included in it, a bale will be downgraded and sold more cheaply.
“Businesses that come to buy want to pay as little as possible, so quality is key in ensuring we get the best price,” says Martin.
It’s becoming increasingly clear to me that prevention – not creating the waste in the first place – is better than cure (the dealing with it once it’s been chucked in the bin).
Dealing with refuse can be a costly business. “The idea that we could make any money off this is ridiculous,” Councillor Michael tells me. “The vagaries of the market worldwide are what informs the process. If we can find a market for something, we’ll take it. And if we can get the glass right we can go from losing a lot of money to making money.”
We’re led outside to see – and smell – a mountain of mess that smells of refuse and beer. We’re told it’s glass. The city pays firms £50 per tonne to take it away. These companies clean it and ground it down into a road construction aggregate – bet you didn’t know that, did you?
This glass, which is also prone to breaking the sorting machines and so costs us far more than just its removal, has a value if collected properly. Which is where the new pilot glass collection scheme, which started in autumn 2018 being rolled out to 17,000 homes, comes in. The Council will be able to sell this clean glass for between £8 and £12 per tonne.
What Cardiff Council can’t recycle it sends to Viridor, the Energy Recovery Facility down the Bay that looks like it might house a ski slope. It handles 350,000 tonnes of non-recyclable waste per year, diverting 95 per cent of South Wales’ non-recyclable waste away from landfill, and generating 30MW of electricity for the national grid, enough to power 50,000 households.
In some good news, last year Wales hit Welsh Government’s 2020 recycling target of 64 per cent. Here in Cardiff though, we recycle and compost 58 per cent of waste, and the Council faces huge fines of up to £21million if it fails to meet the 2020 target.
“Cardiff is the number one recycler of all UK core cities, so in context, compared to other big urban areas, we’re good,” says Councillor Michael. “It’s only by comparison to parts of other Wales that he acknowledges, “we’re not doing so well”.
“As a city we do very well but we need our citizens to take things to the next level,” he says.
The Ripple Effect
Out to take things to the next level and offer her fellow Cardiffians a solution to help reduce their packaging consumption is Sophie Rae. Her shop Ripple opened on Albany Road in Roath after a successful crowd-funding campaign.
But it’s not Wales’ first zero-waste shop – Crickhowell’s Natural Weigh has that claim to fame. And Bristol, you may not be surprised to learn, has three.
“I’m not anti-plastic. It’s a miraculous material, it’s just single-use plastic that’s the problem,” Sophie says. “For us the Ripple message is reduce, reuse, recycle, but in the first instance it’s refuse – recycling has to be option B.”
There around 160 dry bulk wholefoods – pulses, grains, nuts, seeds, dried fruits, cereals – “Everything you can’t find not in plastic in a supermarket.” – which are supplied by Bristol ethical cooperative Essential in 20kg paper sacks.
“Packaging accounts for a fifth of a typical weekly supermarket spend. So this is a very cost effective way to shop for that reason and because it’s tackling food waste,” she says.
Folks bring their reusable jars, bottles and ice cream tubs which they weigh before shopping and then again once they’ve filled them with a product, and a bar code label will be produced for scanning at the till.
“In my experience, when people start to consider what they’re putting into their food and how their food is consumed, they can start to question what they’re putting on their skin too – it becomes a holistic way live and consume,” says Sophie.
The shop also sells natural beauty products, many of which happen to be made in Wales, such as lip balm from Bridgend, as well as sustainable home ware, cleaning and laundry products, and honey.
“It’s about making small changes, and slowly, just as plastics eased their way into our homes, so the alternatives can too. And the supermarkets are making changes. You can take your own containers to the meat and fish counter at Morrisons now, and they’ve reintroduced brown paper bags for fruit and veg.”
These kids care
Lots of folks across Cardiff are doing their bit. Take Phill Lewis of Dusty Knuckle pizza fame who has introduced Italian reusable pizza boxes that have proved (no dough pun intended) so popular that he’s become the UK distributor of the boxes to other restaurants.
“At the restaurant we try to be as sustainable as possible – with our ingredients, and by using reclaimed and recycled materials for instance – so we never liked giving out single-use, cardboard boxes for takeaways. It felt wasteful. So far, the feedback on the reusable ones has been really good. Lots of our takeaway regulars have switched over because they get 50p off their order every time they use them.”
Two more locals making a difference are Nia Jones and Douglas Lewns who set up The No Straw Stand this time last year to encourage Cardiff businesses to take ‘the stand’ against single-use plastic straws. They now have around 50 on board.
The pair recently suggested to the Council that they try to educate young kids about the need to protect the oceans with the help of two books by author Ellie Jackson.
“We approached Cardiff Council about printing and distributing the Wild Tribe Heroes book series to all primary schools in Cardiff and they were super cooperative and the books are being distributed as we speak,” says Nia.
The books about Duffy the sea turtle and Marli the puffin are going to 113 schools, and will be read by 27,000 kids. “The response so far is fantastic,” says Councillor Michael. “These kids care. It’s their world, their future.”
Start small and simple
Becca Clark, director of Green City Events, is excited for Cardiff. “There are some great things bubbling up in Cardiff at the moment. There are repair cafes across the city run by amazing volunteers who will fix nearly anything. There’s also Benthyg, a library of useful things you can borrow instead of having to go buy them.”
And Becca has advice for the likes of me. “Start small and simple. Come to our workshops or events. Meet others trying to do the same and get inspired. Volunteer for a local project. Connect with your community. Volunteer with us! Enjoy the learning and the journey. Don’t just recycle and think you are doing ‘your bit’.”
You know the saying ‘think globally, act locally’? Well it’s a cliché for a reason. There are ways in which we can all raise our game and I intend to try.
Visit Cardiff Rivers Group: Visit The No Straw Stand: https://nostrawstand.com/2018/01/13/introducing-the-wild-tribe-heroes/ Visit Wild Tribe Heroes: https://wildtribeheroes.com/ Visit Ripple here: https://www.rippleliving.co.uk/ Visit Green City Events here: http://www.greencityevents.co.uk/
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