What happens when you start your day at an MRF*
I hope you had a great week? Mine was a bit stressful due to supply chain shortages and other bits and pieces, but hey, that's life.
Vastly more important than me and my woes however, are our new subscribers! A big hearty welcome to Jesús, Nadav, Kavitha, Gillian, Jen and Blanche. Thank you for joining us.
My intention with these newsletters is a) that you'll have an enjoyable Sunday read and b) that you might just learn something cool about sustainability and/or what it's like to run a young eco-friendly fashion brand.
This week I'm talking about recycling, but there's a treasure trove of information about vegan leathers & sustainability in our newsletter archive. You can find articles about how to make a bag, a debate about real vs. vegan leather, and lots of information about up-and-coming, next-gen materials.
*MRF = Materials Recovery Facility. I guess it's a prettied-up way to say "recycling factory."
The MRF: where a lot of our waste ends up.
So! Back to the MRF.
After 18 months of waiting (relatively) patiently for my tour, I finally visited an MRF in East London on Tuesday morning, run by a company called Bywaters.
It was absolutely fascinating and eye-opening.
Today I will provide a quick recap of how the MRF works, touch on the points I thought most interesting, and explain where I ended up that night, wearing my glorious new eau de pong....
Not everything is automated. Men and women sort through our waste, removing thin plastic and dangerous items (e.g. gas canisters that people put IN THE BIN !?$%@!)
Let's pretend we're a plastic water bottle. Purchased at a supermarket, our contents are drunk and then - if we're lucky - we'll be put into a recycling bin. The bin is collected by a garbage truck, which makes its way to an MRF. The truck is weighed in, unloads, and you're literally dumped on the floor of the facility.
A bulldozer pushes you and your friends into an enormous pile. You're then picked up by a crane with a claw, and all of a sudden you're whisked up onto your first conveyor belt.
Human hands pass over you, pulling away your plastic-bag colleagues. You bounce, you bop, and you sway through whirling disks (diverting you from your smaller chums) and whizz along more conveyor belts until you end up exclusively alongside your PET-bottle-pals. You had better be on good terms, because you're about to be compacted together and contorted into a giant bale to be shipped off to a far-away land. The process is of course far more complicated than this, but that's it in a nutshell.
If you're curious about MRFs but can't make it to a tour, check out this 6-minute video: it provides a very good overview of the process.
Where to start? I think I'll dedicate a longer blog post to this section, but in short I was struck by:
- The human factor: Seeing the people who spend hours every day, at a conveyor belt sorting through our waste. My goodness. That was the most confronting part of my tour, even more than the amount of waste. I tried a feeble smile to them as we walked past, but it was not returned. I don't blame them.
- The contents: The Bywaters facility I visited is for commercial customers only (businesses, office blocks etc). None of the material I saw came from residential customers. Nevertheless I saw a teddy bear, Cosmopolitan magazines, and lots and lots of yoghurt pots (!).
- "Nothing to landfill" policy: I've started to see these words on bins around London. The MRF is a recycling plant, so everything that arrives is from recycling bins and should technically be recyclable (should being the operative word). It's different from landfill, which is waste that's dumped and left to decay. My tour guide, Phoebe, said that between 5 and 10% of the waste they receive at the MRF however cannot be recycled, and so is shipped down the Thames to be incinerated. I need to investigate this further to work out how I feel about this part of the process.
EAU DE PONG
After leaving the MRF, I made my way to my co-working space. I was walking along Great Portland Street and caught a whiff of a garbage truck. Thinking "oh! I know all about this now" I looked to see which company's truck it was. I couldn't see one.
I thought to myself, "no... that can't be me." Definitely not. I smelled my jumper and it seemed fine. But it happened again a few hours later when I went for a walk around the block. Oh my goodness, I'm off to an event at 6, and there's no time to get changed! I thought about turning my jumper inside out, but on the balance thought that would probably invoke even stranger looks.
The event (about sustainable investment) was... painful. The co-founder of Gail's was there. She gave me the once over (Gail's is a posh London Bakery chain); there was a young man - Charlie - who was cagey but made it known that he was from a v. successful family; people in the world of Venture Capital; and a few fellow founders. Despite trying to stand a distance (thanks Covid for making this slightly more normal behaviour) the few people to whom I introduced myself kept glancing here, there and everywhere. It was like they were looking to make a quick escape from a bad smell...
Voilà. That was the funniest part of my week. I guess you live and learn... and at least it makes for a good story!
And yes, don't worry. All those clothes when straight into the wash.
Have a great rest of the weekend and catch you, fresh and clean, next week.
Founder | Plant Parent | Proud B Corp-er
Jessica Kruger, LUXTRA