David Nolan, Smallmead MRF supervisor

You can find out what happens to the rubbish you put into your recycling bin during recyling week, which lasts until 29 September. The re3 material recycling facility (MRF) off Reading’s A33, more commonly known as the Smallmead tip, is running free public tours this week.

It may seem an odd way to spend an hour, but there is something unexpectedly heroic about the scale of the place. The shed houses a kind of giant garbage-sorting mechanical deity, lovingly tended by scores of orange-suited acolytes. This machine god is fed moutains of mixed garbage at one end, and after a circuitous route through its digestive system of conveyor belts, sorters, trommels, magnets and manual pickers, it excretes bales of separated steel or aluminium cans, paper and coloured or clear plastic at the other.

Feed me Seymour, feed me all night lowng!

The Smallmead MRF was built about nine years ago and is operated by re3 and FCC Environment on behalf of Reading, Wokingham and Bracknell Forest councils. It used to be run on behalf of West Berkshire Council too, until they decided to stop funding it in 2016; although, on the bright side, that must mean that there are now fewer Veuve Clicquot boxes and used jodphurs to process.

“There are 179,000 households in the re3 area,” said the re3 strategic manager Oliver Burt. “On average, families in our area throw away a tonne – 1000 kg – of waste per household per year. For reference, the refuse trucks you see on our streets take about 10 tonnes. This recycling facility processes about 24,000 tonnes of waste a year.”

“If we can recycle a tonne of plastic, that’s a similar quantity of virgin material – in this case oil – that we won’t need to dig out of the ground,” he continued. “Recycling saves energy and it also saves money. The bales of processed recycled material need to be 96% pure for the economics to stack up.”

The process isn’t entirely mechanical. Although much is done via optical sorters, eddy current separators and a trommel, real people are also involved, sampling input and output for analysis, removing items from the litter stream before machinery is damaged, and of course tending to the machinery when it gets jammed with something it can’t manage. The recycling plant processes about 14 tonnes of material an hour, or about 140 tonnes a day.

At current prices, recycled aluminium sells for about £1000 per tonne, and recycled steel at about £150 per tonne. Separated plastics sell for between £180 and £400 per tonne, depending on the type and colour, mixed plastics are worth about £40 per tonne and paper sells for about £45 per tonne. Proceeds go towards reducing the cost of waste management in the re3 area.

A half-tonne bale of crushed aluminium cans at the Smallmead MRF

re3 have developed an app called re3cyclopedia to help people work out what they can put in their recycling bin, as well as the dates of bin collections. It can be downloaded from the Apple app store and the Google play store.

“Around 10% of rubbish [put in non-recycled rubbish bins] could be recycled,” said Reading’s lead councillor for neighbourhoods and communities Sophia James in a joint statement from Reading, Wokingham and Bracknell local authorities. “One in five items we put in recycling containers should be binned as they cannot be recycled, or are problematic in the recycling process. We want to help residents to understand recycling a bit better and we encourage residents to download re3cyclopedia and follow its guidelines so each of us can do recycling a little bit better than before.”

Free guided tours of the Smallmead MRF are available for over-18s only until Saturday 29 September and can be booked via Eventbrite. Futher information, including important information for people with health considerations, is available via [email protected] .

  1. Book MRF tour via Eventbrite
  2. re3
  3. re3cyclopedia on Apple app store and Google play store