What does the City of Edinburgh Councils do with your “waste” plastics?

Bin Man

Where will my milk bottle end up?

I was asked by a constituent what the Council does with the plastics it collects. Specifically they wanted to know if it was being recycled, landfilled or burned. This was triggered by the “War on Plastic” BBC TV Programme.  Below is the answer…

The Council has in place various collection systems which directly collect materials for recycling or which otherwise divert materials  for recycling, but is not always directly involved in selling to the end use markets.

The main one which householders will use is the contract which covers dry mixed recycling (paper, card, cans and plastics) from household kerbside collections, recycling points in flats and public recycling points, but other sources of recyclable materials include litter bins (which are not collected specifically for recycling but are sorted to allow some recycling to take place), and the bulk recycling skips at Household Waste Recycling Centres.

Although these services are different in detail, for each of our mixed recycling services (green recycling bin, packaging banks and litter collections) essentially in each case a contractor is receiving the mixed streams of materials. These then go through a sorting process and the different materials are sorted into individual streams. It is the contractor’s responsibility to place the materials on the recycling markets. Because the markets themselves change constantly, the waste management companies will deal with a number of different companies across their different waste streams and these may change on an ongoing basis. However it should be noted that the export of clean, properly sorted materials (as opposed to what was shown on the programme) is a legitimate activity. Although some outlets for these are in the Far East, equally materials  are exported from the UK to Europe and Scandinavia. So many of the goods we use are themselves imported so they have to be exported to be recycled.

We publish information in relation to this on our website at here.

The waste management company may not always necessarily be selling to the end user but to an intermediary who in turn sells onto a reprocessor who may be cleaning and shredding materials, and then ultimately to someone who buys the now raw materials to make something with.  This is a function of how the waste management industry is structured. However The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) is responsible for regulating all aspects of the waste industry so they will be aware of the end destinations of recycled materials for the whole of Scotland (in England and Wales this is managed by The Environment Agency). They publish this on a system called Waste Data Flow which tracks all waste in the UK and where it is going, although some of the information will be redacted for commercial reasons.

Each waste management company we deal with issues a monthly statement to us which provides the total of each material recycled (paper, card, plastics, metals, rejects or residual wastes, etc) but it will not always be broken down any further. This is complicated further because when the markets are performing particularly well there will be more incentive to carry out sorting into more streams (e.g. to separate milk bottles from coloured bottles, which may otherwise be reprocessed together).

To use the example of the mixed recycling contract, which is managed by Biffa it is their responsibility to sort and sell as much as possible for recycling and indeed it is in their interest to do so as that material has a market value to them.

We of course realise that there will be materials in each load which either should not be there (e.g. toys, clothes, etc) or is too contaminated (e.g. because it was not cleaned). There are also some materials such as black microwave trays which are recyclable but the markets are weak. Those would be recycled where possible but if there is no market they do have the option not to pull them out.  However materials which are not recycled in the mixed recycling stream are reprocessed as refuse derived fuel, which means they are shredded and dried and used as a cleaner replacement for coal in a power station operated by Scottish and Southern Energy, so there is still an environmental benefit. We do not collect plastic films (e.g. plastic bags) such as those featured in the programme.

There are some exceptions to this – for example glass, food, wood, and garden waste are all collected as single streams and go to a specific end user. The outlets for some of those are listed on our website at , but these are all recycled in Lothian or, in the case of glass, Lanarkshire.

Recycling rates in this country are based on what is sent for recycling after it has been sorted, not what is collected at the start- this is in contrast to other countries where the materials which are sent for refuse derived fuel would often be counted as recycled as well.  Our performance is reported monthly to the Scottish Environment Protection Agency and published annually in a user friendly format here.

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