A peek under the cover

The Olympics triggered an upheaval for Bywaters, which has just opened the largest undercover MRF in London. And it is exceeding expectations, write Mike Gerber and Ruth Lukom

Refinement isn’t a word one often hears in waste management. But they bandy it around at Lea River-side in Bow, east London, where Bywaters has opened a new MRF.

The decision to stage the 2012 Olympics in east London triggered upheaval at Bywaters. The company had three sites inside the Olympic zone which it has now streamlined to two operations – the 3.7 hectare Lea Riverside location, which includes the new largely automated MRF, and a 3.4 hectare facility in Leyton, which includes a construction and demolition plant and a manual MRF.

Ian Jones, Bywaters’ business operations manager, says the Lea Riverside MRF evolved from a survey sent out in 2005. Clients in the corporate, commercial, health, public and construction sectors were asked: “What do you want from our recycling services?” Their reply was: “Make recycling easy.” Clients with space restrictions could not accommodate different receptacles, so Bywaters developed Bycycler colour-coded waste collection. Dry recyclables are placed in orange bags and containers, while residual waste goes into blue.

The 187,000 sq ft Lea Riverside building, the largest undercover facility in the capital, houses the company’s new machine to process dry waste. The plant has an input capacity of 250,000tpa. Bywaters believes customers can recycle 80% of their office waste, of which at least 90% can be recovered through the MRF in 15 different material streams.

Bywaters’ trucks deposit orange sacks full of dry recyclables on the warehouse floor for a visual inspection before they are placed onto hoppers and split open with clawing arms. Contents are placed onto horizontal conveyor belts where hand pickers pull out residual material and film and plastic.

As the materials travel round, they are segregated using methods as diverse as laser beams and old-fashioned gravity. Materials tumble onto churning black rollers, which have sufficient gaps to allow plastics, cans and other small bits to drop through onto another belt.

Norwegian expertise

Large cardboard drops into silos, which move along to accommodate the volume. Plastics are segregated by means of three Norwegian-designed units which emit lasers that can quantify the refraction on each piece of plastic that travels through. This distinguishes between PET, HDPE and other plastics.

As each type is detected, it is pushed into a separate area by a burst of air. Finally each item will find its own silo and be crushed and packaged into bales. Computers calibrate each part of the machine and regulate the volume and speed of material going through. The journey from deposited bag to silo can be as brief as 10 minutes.

Bywaters’ project manager David Rumble says the machine is an assemblage of parts cherry-picked from around the world. Being undercover means that noise, smells and disturbance is kept to a minimum. The MRF’s flexibility for extra refinement comes into its own in the second handpick room where up to 56 handlers can extract either coloured, white or mixed papers.

The MRF was officially opened by London mayor Boris Johnson last month. The facility has been constructed upwards rather than outwards with a mind to a second installation in the future. There are plans to use the tidal River Lee to transport incoming and outgoing material by water. Bywaters by water – it has a nice ring to it.

Mike Gerber is a freelance journalist.

Additional reporting by Ruth Lukom

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie