Transforming materials – the recycling journey

In this week’s blog linked to The Rubbish Collection Curator Sarah Harvey follows the route of the Science Museum’s recycled rubbish.

Joshua Sofaer’s art installation The Rubbish Collection showcases the sometimes surprising materials that are created from the everyday rubbish produced by staff, contractors and visitors at the Science Museum. After documenting all the Museum’s waste for 30 days we have traced where it goes, and how it is recycled and transformed from rubbish back into valuable materials.

Grundon Materials Recovery Facility, Colnbrook © Science Museum

Grundon Materials Recovery Facility, Colnbrook © Science Museum

For recyclable rubbish put into the Museum’s recycling bins the first port of call in the journey is the Grundon Material Recovery Facility (MRF) at Colnbrook near Heathrow. Here it is separated out into several different recycling streams. First magnets remove the ferrous metals (like steel cans) and non-ferrous metals (such as aluminium cans) then sophisticated infra-red technology identifies and separates the remaining rubbish into paper, card, glass and several different types of plastics. Any rubbish that cannot be recycled, or pieces too small to be captured, are taken to the Lakeside Energy from Waste plant for incineration, so no rubbish goes to landfill. At the end of the sorting process the materials are baled as raw materials for resale to companies who take on the next stage of processing.

Artist Joshua Sofaer and Curator Sarah Harvey at Grundon Waste Management Facility, Colnbrook © Science Museum

Artist Joshua Sofaer and Curator Sarah Harvey at Grundon Waste Management Facility, Colnbrook © Science Museum

For each material the recycling and recovery processes are necessarily very different, but it was interesting to find that there is always a loss of some material which cannot be recovered or usefully reused. For the plastics and the glass that loss comes from paper labels and glues that are soaked off in the washing process, forming an unpleasant sticky mulch which gets sent for incineration. Even for the steel and aluminium cans which can be endlessly recycled, there is still some loss from the paints and pigments used in printing their branded logos and decoration.

Aluminium cans at Grundon Waste Management Facility, Colnbrook © Science Museum

Aluminium cans at Grundon Waste Management Facility, Colnbrook © Science Museum

As processes improve and new technology is developed, hopefully one day these materials will either be captured for future use, or the waste will be designed out altogether. The model for keeping 100% of the materials in circulation is known as the circular economy. Sometimes only a small change is needed. In the exhibition we have the plastic label and mixed flake that is retained from PET plastic recycling. By using plastic labels instead of paper the material can be more easily collected and recycled to make new products like plastic bags.

PET plastic flakes in The Rubbish Collection © Science Museum

PET plastic flakes in The Rubbish Collection © Science Museum

There is lots of information on the web about the processing of different materials. Some of the online resources I have found most helpful during this project are:

Glass
Aluminium
Steel
PET plastics
HDPE plastics

Phase 2 of Joshua Sofaer’s The Rubbish Collection is now open at the Science Museum and runs until 14 September 2014.

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