So where does all the waste go?

Next week a major international conference will address the growing crisis over mobile-phone disposal, but what happens to the other things we recycle? Yvonne Gordon reports.

It's not long since national recycling week and the "reduce, re-use and recycle" message is getting through. More and more householders are getting into the habit of recycling; regularly filling green bins and bring-banks with used bottles, cans, paper and plastic.

But not enough is being done. Next week 160 governments - meeting in Geneva under the auspices of the Basel Convention on toxic waste - will address the growing crisis over the disposal of mobile phones, 105 million of which are dumped in Europe alone every year.

In other areas, however, progress is being made. Something that will encourage us to recycle is the changeover to the 'pay-by-use' bin-waste charges. By next January, all households in Ireland will be charged for rubbish collection by weight or volume, rewarding those that reduce and recycle. Cork County Council was the first local authority to introduce this system back in 2002 and it noticed a huge increase in recycling as a result.

But not many people realise the range of items that can be recycled and the unusual end uses that they can have. Not everyone knows where to go with an old TV or computer, or why you shouldn't throw out electrical goods.

Answers can be found in civic-amenity sites around the country, which accept all kinds of household waste. Dublin City Council's recycling centre in Ringsend opened earlier this year and householders can bring everything from paper, cardboard, glass and plastic to used electronic equipment, batteries, computer equipment, timber and hazardous materials. These would include waste engine oil, used cooking oil, used paint tins, pesticides and even mobile phones. There are also collection points for rubble, used books, toys, clothes and postage stamps.

So what happens next? The recycling centre at Ringsend is managed by Thorntons Recycling which organises the logistics of how the waste stream is managed, on behalf of Dublin City Council. Waste with commercial value can be sold on and some waste is even sent abroad for reprocessing. Waste that cannot be re-used is disposed of in an environmentally sound way.

Nearly every type of waste is reprocessed by a specialist in that area. For example, glass goes to Rehab, which also services 2,000 bottle-bank sites nationwide. Jars and bottles are re-used in the manufacturing and pharmaceutical industries or for new glassware. Paper and cardboard goes to specialist paper merchants. All types of paper can be recycled, from newspapers and magazines to cardboard and books. Waste paper is graded and sent to paper mills where it is turned into pulp. The recycled pulp is then mixed with virgin wood-pulp fibres to produce recycled paper and cardboard.

Plastic bottles are another popular item for recycling. These are taken away in containers and melted down to make new plastics. Light plastic, found in soft-drinks bottles, can be turned into synthetic fibres and used to make fleece jumpers and filling for duvets. Heavier plastic, often used for bottles containing household cleaning fluids, can be recycled into things like toys and garden furniture.

One of the most valuable waste streams for recycling is aluminium cans (drinks cans), which can be made into new cans, as making new aluminium is costly and requires a lot of energy. Steel food cans can also be made into new cans. One of the main purposes of civic-amenity sites is to prevent hazardous waste being mixed in with household rubbish, contaminating landfill sites and posing a threat to the environment and to our health, according to Indaver Ireland, which processes the hazardous waste collected at Ringsend.

According to Indaver's Jackie Keaney, a lot of hazardous waste cannot actually be recycled but it is vital that it is separated out from the waste stream. "The issue is to get it out of the black bin at home, out of the landfill and treat it properly," says Keaney, "it's a safe way of disposing it."

Hazardous waste can include anything from used aerosols, detergent bottles and paint tins to fertilisers, pesticides and fluorescent tubes. Collection of these items is supervised by staff at the recycling centre, who make sure that similar materials are kept together, safely and uncontaminated.

Hazardous waste from Ringsend is taken to Dublin Port where it is sorted and added to waste from other sites. It is then sent overseas and treated, either thermally or by controlled incineration that can generate electricity.

Some hazardous waste can be reused and, in addition, an EU directive states that all electrical waste must now be diverted from landfill. Indaver and Rehab have just jointly set up a new processing depot in Tallaght, Dublin, where waste electrical goods like TVs, PCs, toasters and hairdryers are taken to be sorted and then completely dismantled into component parts - plastic, glass, metal and circuit boards. Some parts can be recycled and sold on, sometimes abroad. Of these, chips and circuit boards have the highest commercial value.

Fluorescent tubes are sent by Indaver to Belgium. First the fluorescent powder is removed, analysed to identify what company it is from and recycled back to that company for re-use. Next the glass is separated out, cleaned, crushed and re-used. Separated metal is sent on to scrap yards. "The whole tube is recycled and re-used," says Keaney, who adds that this type of recycling facility is profitable in mainland Europe where a company might service a few countries, but might not be commercially viable to set up in Ireland.

According to Keaney, although the disposal of hazardous metals and plastics is commercially viable and there is revenue for certain streams, the facilities have to pay to dispose of some of the other items so it all balances out.

Other items collected at Ringsend include used cookers and washing machines. Although they don't pose a threat to the environment, they reduce landfill space and contain valuable steel and components. The CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) in fridges do pose a threat to the ozone so they must be degassed. Timber and furniture can be re-used or shredded for chippings. Old computer equipment can be fixed or parts reused.

At Ringsend there are also collection points for books, organised by Oxfam Ireland, and clothing, for Enable Ireland. There is even a special bin for used postage stamps, collected by the Irish Peatland Conservation Council. According to the IPCC, donated stamps are sorted and clipped so that they look neat. They are then sorted into different categories and sold to stamp dealers in Ireland and abroad. Dealers usually buy stamps by the kilo and sell them on to private collectors. There is even a market for generic Irish stamps and first-day issues are very popular. Money raised from selling the stamps goes to the IPCC's Save the Bogs campaign, which saves Irish bogs from windfarms, road development and dumping.

According to John Conway, of Thorntons Recycling, the re-use philosophy is very relevant, referring to how 'one man's trash is another man's treasure'. For example, old computers can be valuable for community groups or schools and mobile phones can be sent to Third World countries.

Conway says a lot of Irish recycled material is exported because reprocessing needs capital investment and there isn't sufficient volume in Ireland at the moment. Costs involved in segregating and transporting waste mean that even if it raises revenue, it is not always profitable. "The travel costs would be the same as the revenues that derive from it," says Conway, "but it means that there is zero disposal cost and it is being diverted from landfill."

The Ringsend recycling centre gets between 300 and 750 cars per day. Because of the costs of transporting and processing some waste, it will shortly be introducing a charge for large items. This will operate per vehicle, from ?4 per car to ?25 per van.

There are civic amenity sites opening all around the country. For example, earlier this month, Thorntons opened a recycling centre in Dunboyne, Co Meath, and in Co Cork there are currently five civic-amenity sites. Cork county council plans to have 23 such sites in place in the county by 2006 - and that couldn't be a bad thing.

For further information on recycling centres, see the waste-management section of or check with your local authority