Ford MRF gets off to a flying start

The largest meccano set on the south coast - that's how Viridor is describing its new high-tec MRF which made a breezy entrance down in West Sussex. A windswept Phil Mellows attended the opening

For a thrilling, nervous moment it seemed as though the old airfield at Ford in West Sussex might see its first take-off for many years. A ferocious, unseasonable wind shook the marquee to its guy-ropes and threatened to lift the whole party into the air - along with the cream of the south's local authority waste management.

Shunning a whistling PA and shouting against weather conditions that had nearly drowned out the inaptly named Fair Winds musical accompaniment, the luminaries who officially opened West Sussex County Council's new MRF at Ford still managed to get an unequivocal message - that this one was special - across to a 150-strong audience that included curious representatives from several other councils.

"This is very much a flagship," said Derek Whittington, cabinet member for strategic planning & transport at West Sussex. "We've been looking at other plants around Europe and we think we've got the best of everything. Inside you will be taken aback." Mike Hellings, managing director of Viridor, the contractor who operates the MRF, added: "This is a bespoke facility, it's state-of-the-art ... you won't see another one like this."

So what puts Ford MRF ahead of the game? Firstly it extracts a wider range of recyclables from co-mingled waste, including different grades of paper from telephone directories to Tetra Paks, aluminium foil and, the big win, glass bottles. Secondly the plant is highly automated, employing only a dozen manual pickers, half the number typically needed at an MRF of this size.

A design triumph
And thirdly - and this is what does take you aback - it's the way in so many different cutting edge technologies have been brought together on a surprisingly small site. It's a triumph of design, jigsaw puzzle solution and patient trial that it all links up and works. To give you an idea, there are no fewer than 90 conveyor belts, all imported from South Africa where, apparently, they make them strong enough to handle glass.

Viridor communications manager Fiona Bussell calls it "the largest meccano set on the south coast" - not to mention, at £15M, the most expensive. With a total capacity of 100,000 tonnes, the Ford MRF should serve West Sussex and the seven local boroughs that take their waste there for a long time. Production is initally running at 65,000 tonnes and will rise to more than 70,000 tonnes when Horsham comes on stream in the near future.

Viridor is confident it will help the county comfortably exceed its 2015 recycling target of 45%. It's already running above target efficiency with less than 5% of the waste arriving at the site going to landfill. Quality is just as important as quantity and the final products have to be good enough to meet the needs of a demanding marketplace - which makes the glass bottles something of a risky venture.

"The decision to include glass was not taken lightly," admitted Phill Russell, head of wastes management services at West Sussex and the man credited with masterminding what has been a decade-long project. "But it means we can take a very simple message to the public about what we can recycle. We have doubled the amount we recycle over the last four years, and it's a consistent message that helps achieve that."

The county's 321,000 households will now each have three different bins in which to sort their waste, with a new recycling bin for Ford joining a green waste bin (currently producing 60,000tpa of compostable waste) and a residual waste bin. An education room at the site, designed by Wastebuster, is aimed at adults as well as children and encourages people to recycle by showing, for instance, just how those plastic bottles become fleece jackets - handily enough in this weather.

Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist

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