The Waste Composition Analysis Adventure and the Importance of Being Responsible Shoppers

A couple of months ago I signed up for one of the weirder jobs I’ve done in my life: waste composition analysis. To remove the euphemistic title: sorting through the rather ripe contents of black bin bags to see what people throw away. It’s a good way for councils to gauge how effective they’ve been at encouraging communities to recycle, as well as providing data on food wastage. I feel it necessary to mention at this point that it is completely legal for council employees to go rootling through household waste in this way as, once the council has collected your rubbish, it belongs to them (you’ve the Environmental Protection Act 1990 to thank for that, which helps to ensure that your household waste is disposed of safely rather than being left to rot in a river).

Some waste, to get you in the mood

Some waste, to get you in the mood (this stuff looks a lot cleaner than what I had to dig through)

But back to my disgusting work experience. I’m one of a group of half a dozen, all eager for the dubious opportunity to get elbow-deep in a random selection of municipal solid waste collected in the North of England. We don hooded coveralls, hardhats, steel toe-cap boots and two sets of gloves (a thick pair to guard against sudden sharp objects, and latex gloves underneath to prevent ‘bin juice’ from seeping through to our lovely clean skin). A brief safety induction from a site manager to the tune of “here are the emergency meeting points, try not to run under a dump-truck”, and we march off into the bowels of the HWRC (Household Waste Recycling Centre), ready to do battle with waste.

The smells of the job come in stages. As we enter our designated area of an immense warehouse, it really isn’t that bad – as it turns out, being in an enclosed space with many tonnes of waste is fine, as long as that waste isn’t being churned up. But then our first load for sorting arrives: the truck disgorges a small mountain of black bags, kicking up a nasal chorus reminiscent of bin-day at home, but more intense by a factor of approximately 100. The huge pile glistens wetly, shifting here and there as it settles. I resist the urge to dive in headfirst.

Tearing open the bags and unleashing a positive rainbow of aromas, we sort the contents into 48 categories, including drinks cans (ferrous and non-ferrous), food cans, dense plastic packaging, cardboard packaging, compostable food waste, non-compostable food waste, and so on. Presumably fearful that we might run out of awfulness to sort through, the truck returns later in the day to top up the pile.

Maggots. Mmm, look at 'em glisten

Maggots. Mmm, look at ’em glisten. Don’t say I never give yer nuffin.

Top finds of the day include a Furby Baby, its once soft fur entirely matted with the grey slime of far-gone food waste; a dead pheasant, in perfect condition but for the fact that someone had neatly removed its head; and an unidentifiable dead thing, which very nearly induced vomiting in one of my colleagues. These items are segregated for their humour/disgust value. We also uncover a healthy colony of maggots, which do not get their own category.

It’s only a cross-section of waste disposal habits in one area of the UK, of course, but I find it depressing to see the amount of recyclable material headed for landfill. Even worse is the level of food waste, from unopened yoghurts and packets of meat (still in date, even when they get to us) to still-sealed bags of fruit and vegetables. Why, in the current economic climate, with food prices rocketing but bank balances plummeting, are people throwing away perfectly edible food?

I can’t answer for them, of course, and can only highlight that buying and then binning food is by no definition a good thing. It’s money wasted, it’s energy wasted, it’s landfill space needlessly used up. When you’re out shopping for food, chances are you’re not thinking about how that food came to be in the supermarket, and chances are also that you aren’t thinking about where the stuff you throw away will end up, right?

However, as consumers, it’s our duty to recognise our part in the cycle. The more food we buy, the more needs to be created for us to buy. That puts pressure on the systems providing it, which pushes up prices. Those increased costs will be passed on to us, because no private company is going to shoulder that burden at the expense of its shareholders.


I’ll be going into this in a bit more depth, as well as giving some advice on the little changes we can all make, in my next post…