What Happens at a Recycling Centre

What Plastic’s intrepid reporter (me!) recently went on a tour of the local waste management centre to learn all about what happens to your household waste once it’s been picked up by the bin lorry. Part one of this trilogy of blog posts will be looking at what happens to the contents of your recycling bin in the facility’s recycling area.

You may not have realised it, but the contents of your recycling bin don’t actually get recycled at your local recycling centre. The first stop on their recycling journey is the MRF (Materials Recycling Facility, pronounced “murf” to rhyme with “smurf”) where they get sorted into different kinds of waste through a combination of manual and automated sorting before being baled and sent all over the country to different specialist facilities that do the actual recycling.


recycling map

One of the MRF’s most important jobs is to manually sort out the recyclables from the non-recyclables. People will apparently stick all sorts of inappropriate things in the recycling, including tools and bikes*, so it’s really important that they’re removed at the start of the process before they can damage the recycling machinery. Don’t worry though this waste will still get sorted and sent to the appropriate recycling location.

As well as manual sorting, the MRF is equipped with all sorts of machines that send materials zooming along more than 3 km of high-speed conveyor belts and leaping dramatically off the ends.

Some of these machines are pleasingly simple. Ferrous metals, for example, can be extracted using magnets. When it comes to non-magnetic metals – things like aluminium drinks cans – the recycling centre uses something called an eddy current separator. This is essentially a conveyor belt with a massive spinning magnet at one end. As the magnet spins, it creates an electric current in the metals on the conveyor belt. The electric current then forms a magnetic field which repels the spinning magnet’s magnetic field and sends the metals flying off the end of the conveyor belt into a separate collection bin. Any non-metallic items on the conveyor belt will just drop casually off the end into another bin.

On the theme of things flying off conveyor belts, I was particularly taken by the targeted air jet separators. These are used for sorting out different types of plastic. As the waste travels along the conveyor belt, it’s scanned by NIR (near infrared) spectrometers. These futuristic-sounding gizmos fire NIR light at the waste to detect what kind of plastic it’s made from. At the end of the conveyor belt there’s a series of little air jets that can be switched on and off to target specific items and make them fly off into a separate collection bin.

tabletop made from recycled plastic bottles

Above: a tabletop made from recycled plastic.

Here are a few of my favourite stats and bits of info that I learned on my MRF tour:

  • Glass can be recycled forever. Paper can be recycled 7 times. Plastics can only be recycled once or twice before they get downgraded into something of a lower value such as clothing
  • It takes 7 drinks bottles to make an England football shirt
  • Recycled plastics are worth about £350-£400 per ton. The money is used by the MRF and by the local council to help fund our bin collections and waste processing
  • Don’t worry about putting broken glass in with your recycling as it’ll get crushed at the recycling facility anyway! And as I mentioned above, glass can be recycled infinitely so it’s really important it doesn’t end up in landfill
  • Remember to wash and squash your recycling. It doesn’t have to be completely spotless but it helps not to get food contamination all over everything (and it’s a common courtesy for the people who have to sort through your waste!)

So there you have it: an insight into your recycling bin’s adventures once it leaves your home. Parts 2 and 3 of this series look at what happens at a landfill site and what happens at a composting facility.

*If you’re in the London area, consider donating old bikes to https://thebikeproject.co.uk


Find out more:



To stay up to date with What Plastic, follow us on Facebook, Instagram  or Twitter.