A Grand Day Out (two actually)

Waiting for our turn to "tip" the lorry at the MRF

In the past few weeks I had two close encounters with the Environmental services of Lewisham Council.

The first took place on Monday 25th January, there I met the highest echelons of the environmental services, namely the Head of Environment at LBL Nigel Tyrell (of Love Lewisham fame), and the Strategic Waste and Policy Manager Sam Kirk. As if that wasn’t enough there was also Steve Brown, who is the Managing Director of both the SELCHP (South East London Combined Heath and Power) and MRF (Materials Recycling Facility), two major operation for waste treatment.

I can’t stress this enough, but I am really grateful for their precious time and the opportunity afforded me. The meeting emerged as a follow up to my questions to Council about kitchen waste and its suitability for a power from waste plant (I’m told this is how the place formerly called incinerator should be called from now on) like SELCHP.

The meeting lasted for 1 and 1/2 half hour, so besides my proposal for kitchen waste we also discussed many other aspects of waste collection and treatment, mostly, why the SELCHP is not delivering heat besides power and what’s needed to make this happen; what recyclables are collected and all the problems connected with the practicalities of the service; how to educate and involve more people in aiding a more efficient service and emerging policies and various best practices. The discussion also touched on the subject of Council’s core services and the growing opportunities for partnering with an expanding private sector delivering environmental services.

In all an open wide discussion and for me a lot of food for thought.

Now,  before I move on to the next encounter with the environmental services let me touch on my kitchen waste proposal. The idea is good and they really evaluated it, there is unfortunately a physical limit that I didn’t know of that makes it at present impossible, and that’s the capacity of the turbine at SELCHP to produce more electricity that it currently does. The fact is that the turbine is already working at full capacity, and this means that even increasing the caloric content of the combusted you wouldn’t extract any more energy, and therefore no increase in revenue from sale of that energy to then pay for the composting. I asked if an extra turbine could be retrofitted then, and the short answer is that in theory yes, a problem could be the size of the site, that may not be big enough.

So, it’s still a decent idea, it’s not applicable now and it may never be applicable to SELCHP in particular, but if we must build more power from waste plants it would be worth considering that they can deliver much more energy than the past generation does by being more selective of the materials combusted, something that could be achieved through means of market by applying different gate fees for different materials as is the case in some countries that have a more advanced policy of waste treatment.

Anyway, towards the end of the meeting a proposal came, to join a crew of Bin Men and see for myself what a collection of recyclables is for real. And that’s how it happened that I became a Bin Man for one day. And I loved it!

The day, Wednesday 24th February, the place, Wearside Road Depo, I am greeted by Alvaro Espinosa, operation manager, “I had two eggs for breakfast” I tell him “you should have had six” he replies.

After receiving my steel capped boots and hi vis vest I receive my bin man induction, I am instructed on the controls of the bin lorry, how to latch the bin and lift it, domestic bin, commercial bin, and all safety procedures which include the  recommendation “and when the bin comes down it’s best to stand to the side, they don’t normally fall, only when you’re looking away”. Then off to join the crew in Forest Hill, Tom, Noel and Krzysztof.

The level of job satisfaction is surprisingly high, Bin Men are environmentalists, and of the practical kind. The older guys saw our society getting more wasteful through the content of our bins, and they have a lot to say about it, because they do a lot about it. The phrase “getting down and dirty” was never truer, they open every bin and check its content to avoid contaminating the rest of the lorry. Unfortunately people throw all kinds of unsuitable material in the recycling bin. Like this packet of bacon, which is quite obviously neither made of paper, tin, plastic or glass, and together with similar items has the potential to send a lorry of recyclables back to Lewisham to be incinerated.

I actually very much enjoyed the job itself, there’s a lot of running and it’s teamwork, it strongly reminded me of basketball. In fact the crew loves the action. I spoke with one manager that made a career from Bin Man up and moved in the office, he still sometimes go out with the crew, for the workout and the excitement.

Here are two little action videos, the Lorry Hop and the Bin Man Run, to show the appeal of the action.

And here’s Krzysztof doing a reverse in a narrow road clogged by parked cars and road works that Jeremy Clarkson can only dream of.

Here we are in the lorry driving down to Nathan Way to “tip”  the lorry. Chatting about contaminated loads and rounds of collections, the radio tells details of dog fouling, the other side of the Love Lewisham service.

Finally there and I’m told how long we have to wait. It’s an incredible situation but Greenwich lorries have preference and so Lewisham lorries wait up to 2 and half hours, watching the Greenwich guys passing in front of us and that’s exactly how long we had to wait too.  This situation occurs because Lewisham has only recently switched to deliver the recycling directly there, it used to tip the lorries in another depo that would then bring the rubbish to Nathan Way overnight on larger trucks but this was too expensive, I’m told that a better contract is being negotiated so that Lewisham lorries don’t have to endure this absurd wait for much longer.

Anyway, since we had to wait at this point the Asterix that I had found neatly piled inside a bin in Forest Hill came handy indeed. I think I correctly applied the hierarchy of waste disposal here, reuse, reduce, recycle. Asterix, re-used, not re-cycled!

And here’s what the view from the window was, the monster trucks of the MRF in action among the plastic eating seagulls of Nathan Way. Fascinating, but not for 2 and 1/2 hours.

This is instead the view of the rear of our truck after it finally unloaded its 8 tons of collected recyclables on the floor of a warehouse inside the MRF. It will be checked through and if despite all efforts it will be found contaminated it will be sent back to Lewisham. And that happens quite often.

But that’s only more reason to think up better ways to educate those few that  rather mindlessly spoil entire truckloads of collected recyclables with used nappies, rotten bacon and alike.

We also need to widen the range of recycled materials and of course I still think that all compostable material should be composted, not burnt.

It’s a great challenge, but there are also great opportunities ahead, like with the mattrasses scheme, where a private operator approached the Council and asked to partner and take care of mattrasses. They found a way to make money out of them and they make the Council services virtually bigger without adding burden to the taxpayer. Waste is a resource and we must improve our recycling.

We have in Lewisham an imaginative management and a committed workforce,  and yet the recycling rates lag behind many other boroughs. Is it because we rely heavily on the SELCHP and the materials extracted there don’t make good to the statistics? Or is it because we lack sufficient political support to the work of the environmental services? Maybe it’s a bit of  all of this, but frankly I find it really bizarre that Lewisham’s Cabinet doesn’t have a dedicated member for Environment.

We have a member for Customer Services, which include both Environment and Housing, two huge portfolios held by only one person. On housing, Lewisham is a notoriously poor performer, recently the Council lost £150m for home improvements that had already been allocated to them for failing to achieve adequate rating. As for the Environment indicators, the poor recycling rates recorded do not express adequately the efforts made by the services. All this tells me that this unwillingness to commit sufficient political attention to what happens on the shop floor has been a mistake.

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8 Responses to “A Grand Day Out (two actually)”

  1. Barrie Hall Says:

    Max,
    Very interesting post. I’m interested in the pros and cons of the SELCHP. Particularly the emissions safety.
    As far as I understand it, emissions are spot checked not continuously monitored which can lead to high emissions of toxins, including dioxins, being undetected. Greenpeace produced quite a good report on this a few years ago.
    Also, you’re left with nearly half of the burned material as ash which has to be transported to landfill elsewhere. This is obviously full of nasties, and has to be transported and disposed of very carefully, where it can’t leach into the water table. Did you see the onward journey of the ash waste? Where does it end up I wonder?
    Thanks,
    Barrie

  2. Max Says:

    Hi Barrie,

    I haven’t been to the SELCHP actually, but I’m keen to visit it soon.
    I did ask if the SELCHP emissions are safe he they told me that yes they are, but he would say so, wouldn’t he?
    In the past I did read the recorded data about emissions and their monitoring and for what I could tell they didn’t look bad, there is a measurable impact of the order of traces considered very safe although I think you’re correct in saying that they’re not continuously monitored from stations at a distance from the plant (as because of winds emissions’ greatest impact is not felt immediately near the plant but at some distance) but I hope that a monitoring system at the emission point exists.

    Anyway, leaving emissions aside and speaking of the desirability of incineration, there are clearly pros and cons, especially if the alternative is the landfill.
    One pro is that maybe even more nasties would be landfilled if they weren’t processed through the incinerator. Another is that you have fewer lorries full of rubbish travelling to the landfills. Anotehr is that you don’t sacrifice perfectly good land to landfill and another is that through incineration you recoup a lot of metals that would otherwise be lost. Some good pros I’d think.
    The content of poisonous elements in the outputs would anyway be relative to their quantity at the input, so a screening of the materials inputted is clearly very necessary. One thing we discussed for example is whether energy-efficient lightbulbs are removed as they contain mercury.
    Regarding the ash, I think that a lot of it (although probably nor all of it) is packaged into building materials, although what in detail I don’t know.

    As I said, I haven’t been there yet but I look forward to visit soon, and I’m also keen to hear from both sides and know more what are the pros and cons and what mitigating measure to spare some of the cons should be advocated.
    I am anyway quite supportive of the idea that those plants are necessary, only that they must only process what is strictly necessary and desirable to be processed in that way, so no to poisonous materials and no to compostable or recyclables.

  3. lovelewisham Says:

    Hi Max,

    Glad you enjoyed your time with our crew and service. They’re a great bunch of people and work very hard. As for the dry-recylables (the stuff they collect) we actually perform very well compared to most other London boroughs. I think your next trip should be with a domestic refuse crew, and see them tip at SELCHP. But be warned, they start at 6 am!
    All the best,
    Nigel.

  4. Max Says:

    Hi Nigel,

    it was great going round with the crew, they’re great guys indeed, and it’s so much fun, and nothing is as informative as doing it.

    Oh yes please, I want to go to SELCHP and doing another round with another crew is the perfect entry ticket (6 am is often the time I finish to work, but I can synchronize with the rest of the world).

    And pleased to hear that on the dry recyclables we’re doing well, to think we could do even better if people would learn the difference between a grey and a green bin.
    Great thanks again
    Max

  5. Councillor Susan Wise Says:

    Dear Max

    I am very glad that you enjoyed your journeys to the SECHP and MRF plants with Lewisham’s officers who always provide an excellent service to our borough.
    That you spoil your blog post by misrepresenting the status of important issues in my portfolio of Customer Services by adding a cheap political swipe at me at the end is inappropriate to say the least. Lewisham Labour Council demonstrates daily that it has a great willingness to commit political attention and leadership to the services we provide to our residents, and always takes on board advice from experienced officers on how to further improve.
    Councillor Susan Wise
    Cabinet Member for Customer Services
    London Borough of Lewisham

  6. Max Says:

    Thank you Susan, I enjoyed the day indeed.

    As for political considerations, I don’t think they are inappropriate, but I welcome your comment, people deserve to read both sides of the argument. How can they draw their own conclusions otherwise?

  7. Filipa Marques Neto Says:

    Dear Max,
    Thank you for sharing your experience!! It was very interesting to read through this and understand some of these issues.
    I am however unclear about what type of waste material is used to produce energy in the SELCHP?
    Regards,
    Filipa

    • Max Says:

      It would be all general waste collected through the black bins minus metals recovered before incineration and also some of the waste collected through the green bins but that for a reason or another is unsuitable for recycling (contaminated normally).

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