Recycling doesn't actually happen does it? Oh yes it does! It all goes in landfill right? Oh no it doesn't! In the autumn we began recommending Quantum Waste, an ethical composting, recycling, and waste company, adding full details of their location waste service to our 'Waste Management on Set' page. We thought it was about time we showed you how they roll...
At the start of the year, Daisy and I headed to QW’s HQ in deepest darkest Deptford. Having been to a few MRFs before (that's a 'materials recovery facility' to you and me), I was expecting to find a sprawling, smelly, depressingly full-of-all-kinds-of-crap open warehouse with miles of sorting conveyor belts, and a group of seagulls circling overhead. However, as we approached, we realised we were headed to a railway arch. Eh?
We meet QW’s Spanish-born Javier Rojo at the entrance to the arch, having just hopped off his bike. Inside it's compact but neat, and everything has its place - most importantly there’s practically no smell. Compost bins at the back, plastic compactors on the left, sorting tables and cardboard balers on the right. 'We deal with almost 1,000 bags a day in here which we ask customers to separate into food waste, and everything else’, Javier tells us. Each bag is sorted by hand, by the drivers who have collected it. This may sound like a laborious process, but as Javier says, 'the most sophisticated sorters are humans, not machines.' The guys here sort roughly 12 bags an hour, separating into aluminium, steel, cardboard, paper, clear PET plastic, frosted HDPE plastic (such as milk cartons), plastic film, cooking oil and glass, as well as food waste and garden waste for compost.
'We deal with almost 1,000 bags a day in here which we ask customers to separate into food waste, and everything else’
We check out the compost bin, where the waste sits for 4 weeks before going to cure in a greenhouse for a further 4 weeks. It's generating some impressive heat on this cold January day, as the enzymes break down the food waste, making some of the best compost money can buy (at only £1.50 a bag!). Javier takes a minute to show us the results: egg shells, bones, still roughly visible but amazing for feeding your garden. However, he also comes across an unwelcome sight - a rogue fruit sticker, his arch nemesis in compost making. 'We sieve the compost before bagging to try to get them, but the odd one slips through the net', he says. They also work with food waste charity FareShare, ‘sometimes they just have too much food, and can’t distribute it before it’s past it’s best. This way something positive still comes from those donations.’
And what happens to the recyclable materials? Once they have enough of any one type, they’re sold at market rates, to those using the raw materials to make new products. Prices range from around £70 for a tonne of cardboard, to roughly £150 for a tonne of plastic milk bottles. Around 70% of the plastic actually ends up in China. The funds from these sales plus the fees charged to customers like us for collection are how QW keep going. They are well-known in their local area, serving a lot of the nearby businesses such as Goldsmiths University and Pop Brixton, and those in neighbouring arches, who drop off their waste by hand. Occasionally they also pull out some gems: the whole team of driver-sorters is dressed in high vis and steel toe cap boots that turned up in a collection from Network Rail.
For these guys, ‘rubbish’ is any item too soiled (with food) to be recycled - sale prices are affected if the materials aren't clean enough. These items are taken to an energy recovery facility. Essentially this means the waste is burned and energy generated through the combustion process is captured and sold back to the energy grid. Technically this is what’s called ‘zero waste’ as nothing QW collect is going to landfill. However, he warns us to be wary when looking at other waste companies’ claims: ‘A zero to landfill doesn’t mean that everything is being recycled, and larger facilities with sorting machines will reject large quantities of bags which are too mixed up. Those bags are burned, which although diverting from landfill, is not the best solution. The way we work means we can guarantee around 90% of the materials we collect are recycled or composted, and only a small amount goes to energy recovery.’ A lot of this rubbish from larger facilities is actually sent to Europe to be incinerated, leaving Javier wondering what might happen once Brexit kicks in. Will we start dealing with it better once it’s all stuck in our own backyard?
Having recently developed their online booking system (www.quantumwaste.com/app), QW are keen for us to start adopting it to book in collections from our shoots. It’s easy to use, giving a collection cost estimate, and even sends you an alert once the waste has been collected, along with a payment link for PayPal. Better waking up to that than an email from an angry neighbour at your location because some fox has been through your uncollected waste and scattered a load of leftover apple crumble and custard over their front lawn. You can get more details about using the app over on our ‘Waste Management on Set’ page. Several production companies have already signed up, including Acne, Independent and The Mill, plus location managers Algy Sloane (Scout Productions) and Martin Wady (We Are Find).
Now 4 years old, in the future QW aims to have several sorting facilities around London, minimising driving time (and emissions) getting around all of their customers, including our shoots. They’re also looking into electric vehicles to reduce emissions further, as well as developing a city farm project on the edge of London near the M25, in conjunction with the local council and community. Using QW is a great way to cost effectively recycle and compost waste, and long may their great work continue!