Biffa beefs up its recovery operations

The acquisition of Greenstar now means Biffa has a striking portfolio of super MRFs. Mike Gerber went to visit London's largest in Edmonton.

In a perfect world, there would be zero waste – nada – everything recycled, reused. In the real world, advanced materials recycling facilities such as the giant new plant in Edmonton, north London can help the UK realise what is optimally achievable.

The Edmonton facility is proving a boon for recycling less than a year into its operational life. It is London’s largest MRF, licensed to handle up to 500,000tpa of recyclables. Arriving there, one notices Greenstar signs everywhere. These will be replaced because Greenstar UK, which founded the facility, was acquired by Biffa last year.

“We’re in the process of rebranding,” explains Mike Topham, the Biffa director responsible for recycling, and previously Greenstar’s finance director. On the strategic benefits, he says: “Greenstar invested ahead of the curve a bit in terms of recycling and reprocessing, which I guess was a natural thing for a new entrant into the market to do.

“Biffa, as an incumbent business with a long-established infrastructure of landfill and collection, had probably not moved as quickly as it would have liked to in that area. The acquisition of Greenstar has helped to accelerate Biffa’s migration towards a more resource recovery led organisation.”

Biffa can now boast three ‘super MRFs’ – the others are in the West Midlands and Manchester. Edmonton, sprawling 175,000ft2, processes co-mingled and source-separated dry recyclables from local authorities across London, the South-east and Home Counties, and also commercial and
industrial materials. It is in an ideal location for a mega- MRF, connected to big arterial roads, in an industrial area in Europe’s biggest conurbation. “We came to the conclusion that north London has under-capacity of co-mingling recycling infrastructure,” Topham explains.

Sorting superstar

Sorting equipment from Californian MRF specialist CP Manufacturing features innovations that meet the plant’s exacting requirements: improved screen drives for paper processing with a world-first toothed rubber belt, rather than sprocket and chain; optical sorting technology for recyclables
such as foil and plastic film; and a higher number of separators to boost recovery and quality.

The plant handles steel, aluminium and other metals, fibres, newspapers, magazines, cardboard, Tetra Pak, and glass. Critically, it offers solutions to municipalities frustrated with low levels of plastics recycling. “Not just plastic bottles,” Topham points out, “but food trays, even larger rigid plastic items, which we will recover from the facility and will take them for processing.

“We have the advantage here where we are able to capture more plastics and then send them on for further reprocessing at our new facility that we’re building at Biffa Polymers. This will do further cleaning, shredding, washing and polymer separation to create high quality re-prime plastics.” The Polymers site is based near Redcar on Teesside. With such sophisticated sorting, councils need have no qualms about opting for co-mingled collections of dry recyclables, rather than source separation, Topham maintains.

“Biffa’s view is that the optimal solution is to have a co-mingled service on an alternate weekly basis, a general waste service for the alternate week together with a food collection on the same vehicle which can just be done with a pod on the side of the vehicle on a weekly basis.

“One of the best examples we have is a contract in South Oxfordshire in the Vale of White Horse, which are two adjacent districts – a combined contract – and we believe it’s the highest landfill diversion rate in the country, around 70%.”

Recyclables salvaged at Edmonton are sold to reprocessing outlets, predominantly in the UK. But some material is exported, particular fibre for paper – much of which is sent to the Far East. Topham makes a robust case for the shipments: “There’s a lot of container ships going back to the Far East with not a lot in them because the direction of most finished goods comes from the Far East to western Europe.

“So there’s great opportunity to send the material back in those ships and there are some very efficient hi-tech paper mills that can take the material. They need the feedstock because they’re making the packaging for the products which then get sent back to us.”

So does Biffa have plans for further such plants? “There are no specific hard plans but we absolutely will. It’s a certainty with the increasing levels of recycling you see with household or commercial businesses,” maintains Topham.

He adds: “The UK waste industry’s infrastructure 10 years ago was designed around getting material into a hole in the ground. Now, 25% of household material is going into a facility like this and that will increase in the next few years. Landfills will close and recycling facilities will become more abundant, and Biffa will be part of that.”

Mike Gerber is a freelance journalist

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