NCC environmental programmes advisor Karen Lee, David Stephenson, Yuri Schokking and Smart Environmental upper South Island regional manager Tim Hodgson at Nelson’s Materials Recovery Facility. Photo: Sara Hollyman.

What happens to our recycling?

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After watching a video of how the city’s recycling is processed, Sara Hollyman wanted to know more. She takes a look inside the facility to find out exactly what happens to our 1, 2 and 5 plastics, cardboard and cans.


Perhaps like many Nelsonians, once I trundle the yellow-topped bin down the driveway it’s a matter of out of sight, out of mind. But I will soon learn that we all should be much more aware of exactly what goes into it.

Smart Environmental national resource recovery manager Yuri Schokking leads me into the Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) on Fittal St, Richmond.

It is only just back up and running after a large plastic tray, similar to the kind your meal is served on at McDonald’s, jammed a conveyor and shut the whole plant down earlier in the morning. Yuri tells me things like this are a common operational occurrence.

Fifteen conveyors lead in all different directions and remind me somewhat of my first experience with a spaghetti junction in Los Angeles.

TDC team leader waste management David Stephenson tells me that, over the past couple of months, 12 per cent of everything that comes into the facility leaves as contamination – or waste, a number they would prefer to see below 10 per cent, but he assures me Nelson Tasman residents are actually rather good at recycling.

But what does doing it correctly mean?

Apart from the things I already know – only plastics with 1, 2 or 5 in the triangle – I learn it also means no squishing cans or bottles, it means no coffee cups or Just Juice cartons because they aren’t actually just cardboard, it means rinsing the objects before putting them in the bin and it means no lids.

After the recycling truck dumps our recycling, it is loaded on to the conveyor system.

The first stop on the journey for our objects is a trommel, which looks like a hugely oversized washing machine drum. It strategically spins all of the objects around, firstly weeding out anything smaller than 50mm which can’t be recycled – lids, broken bits of glass and a wide array of other random, tiny objects – before shaking out any 3D objects less than 250mm, like plastics and cans.

A bouncing conveyer then jiggles the flat paper and cardboard to the top and any three-dimensional objects to the bottom. This is why we shouldn’t squash plastic and cans, because this conveyor thinks they are cardboard and they end up in the wrong place.

I see a high-heel shoe tumble to the bottom, followed by its matching pair and then a lone sneaker. With no correct home to go to it will eventually be off to landfill or, if it can be recycled, it will go into the correct line.

Fibre objects, which make up 70- 80 per cent of our recycled goods, whiz past two eagle-eyed workers who manually pull out anything that shouldn’t be there.

Plastics and cans are sent through an artificial intelligence computer at an alarming speed.

The computer learns what different objects are. It takes a photo of every single item and selects which cage to send it to. Milk bottles to one, soft drinks to another, cans somewhere else.

This is the end of the line for the products which then get squished, baled into 200-500kg piles and stacked ready to be sent around the country.

Flight Plastics in Wellington buy our type 1 plastics and turn them into things like biscuit packaging, tomato punnets and muffin trays.

Comspec in Christchurch take our other plastics and re-process them into plastic trays for use by manufacturers.

I have a new-found respect for what this passionate team do for our region, they really care about what happens to our waste and they want us to care, too.

So next time you go to put the food-covered pizza box in the recycling bin, don’t do it. Wash the margarine container, don’t squish the milk bottle or the beer can. Be considerate of the hard-working team who have to sort and then find a buyer for our reusable waste, but more importantly be aware of where your waste ends up.

For more information on recycling dos and don’ts visit the Nelson City Council website.