The future of recycling in East London

Jeff Cooper of the International Solid Waste Association take a tour around three recycling facilities of the Lower Lea Valley.

The ISWA (International Solid Waste Association) Recycling and Waste Minimisation Working Group met in conjunction with the Futuresource Conference and Exhibition. On Friday 12 June the group had an eco-friendly study tour walking through the Lower Lea Valley, including two main site visits to family businesses set up in the early 1950s: the LMB textile sorting plant in North Crescent, part of the Cody Road Industrial Estate and the Bywaters' Materials Reclamation facility in Twelvetrees Crescent further north.

The Lower Lea Valley
The Lower Lea Valley

The Lower Lea Valley (Bow Creek) is currently in the throes of redevelopment fervour with even more new rail links and stations being built as part of the improvement of the London Overground (North London Line) and its extension to Woolwich Arsenal. At present, however, the area from Canning Town station up to Bromley-by-Bow can be categorised into three distinct zones, improving dramatically as you move further north.

The southern area has a huge concentration of waste and reclamation businesses, including scrap metal and paper recovery, waste transfer operations with recovery of whatever materials will reduce the effect of the £40 (€50) per tonne landfill tax plus up to an equal amount in landfill fees when disposing of the residue. Often these businesses extend their activities by spilling out onto the neighbouring pavements and roadways. In addition, in that area there is also a large amount of hazardous waste left on pavements and in abandoned sites.

Then the ISWA group moved up into the Cody Road industrial estate. This area was redeveloped in the 1970s. London Recycling, taken over by Viridor in early June, has several units, mainly processing office papers, and LMB has its main operating site.

Finally we walked into the area where Bywaters is now operating from. In their case it is from a former stationary distribution depot. Many of the other units in this newly redeveloped area are engaged in delivery and distribution activities.


LMB is one of the three largest companies in the UK still undertaking the sorting of textiles (and also shoes) in order to ensure their reuse after first use by UK households and commercial premises. Often, of course, many of those clothes and even more of the shoes coming from households have never or only once been worn.

LMB textile recycling
LMB textile recycling

The decline of textile sorting operations in the UK is now evident in the fact that there are now only three major textiles sorting operations remaining within the UK. Together Wilcox, Nathan's Wastesavers and LMB represented their cause at the first CIWM/ESA Futuresource Conference and Exhibition under the new title of SortUK – the Alliance of UK Textile Sorters.

The value of the textiles handled by these companies varies with global market conditions, currently and up to £300 per tonne. Sadly, most textiles collected in the UK are now sent out to Poland for sorting, although even then costs of labour in Poland are now sufficiently high that textiles are being sent on to India for further sorting.

The LMB operations covering four sites in the Lower Lea Valley and others elsewhere, including East Africa, are based on a rag sorting operation first established in 1951. Over the course of nearly 60 years LMB has developed other significant reprocessing, manufacturing and sales elements, all essential to keep the core business profitable. There are 500 employees in the LMB operations, including 80 at the main sorting site which handles 200 tonnes of textiles each week. A further sorting site handles 50 tonnes a week.

The main site takes in the material collected from LMB's clothes banks, which are located in conjunction with local authorities and on waste disposal authorities' household waste recovery facilities and which provide the vast bulk of LMB's supplies. Further textiles are purchased from other suppliers but none from charity shop sources.

Purchases from hotels are now more frequent compared to a couple of years ago. This is due to many hotels purchasing lower specification and thinner linen capable of fewer wash cycles, 60 compared to 80-90 wash cycles formerly common.

Textiles arrive at the LMB facility
Textiles arrive at the LMB facility

The trend to lower quality is evident in the UK with cheaper and thinner materials being used for clothing. As 17% of the material is washed away over two years of use it means that fewer items are capable of further use. Interestingly, two to 2½ years is the length of time that both the UK and Austria's consumers use or store and then discard their clothing on average. Ray Clark from LMB noted that the amounts and quality of textiles from lower socio-economic areas exceeded those arising from higher socio-economic areas because the former were more concerned about fashion.

The amount of textiles going through reuse systems in Austria and Germany is only around 30% and in the UK is also about 30%. While there are some clothing and other items which ought to be consigned to the residual waste stream at least double the amount currently being sent for re-use could also be re-used and recycled.

Container manufacture

Quite soon after local authorities started to be interested in the collection of textiles in the 1980s, LMB decided that they needed to provide textile collection containers designed and manufactured to their own specification. The facility, which manufactures, maintains and repairs LMB's steel containers and those for other operators, is the first site you come to if you walk from Canning Town tube and DLR station and walk north into the Lower Lea valley via Bidder Street.

One of the problems with the periodic high value of textiles is the problem of theft. Small children have been used to access textile containers' feed slots and pass out textiles to adults. Recently the banks have been redesigned to prevent this happening and this has led to thieves drilling out the hinges of the door in order to access the textiles inside.

The latest containers from LMB are now bottom opening to preclude the worst of the damage associated with previous thefts. Bottom opening containers have, of course, been the standard type of container for the collection of glass but regarded as unnecessary for textiles. Indeed, moving over to these containers was expensive but necessary for LMB. It also required new vehicles.

LMB needed a minimum payload of 2500kg in the vehicle but still have to utilise a 7.5 tonne vehicle in order to avoid higher costs for vehicle taxation and driver wages. In the end an LMB-designed unit with a hoist and a lightweight demountable container and still providing 2700kg of payload was produced. Four of these units are now in operation with LMB.

Above all what the textile containers need to do is keep the textiles dry. However, given the high value of reclaimed textiles, LMB now has a drying unit to use when it is necessary. One of the advantages of having all the aspects of the operation under its own control is that LMB can match its collections and deliveries to the sorting plant's operational parameters and thus maximise overall throughput.


The textiles are delivered by LMB's own fleet of vehicles and deposited under cover into a conveyor pit. The material then moves to the first inspection point where bags are emptied and any contaminants removed. Although contaminants are usually minimal some are difficult to deal with, such as weapons, ammunition and scissors.

Garments are sorted manually up to seven times
Garments are sorted manually up to seven times

The next conveyor then turns 90 degrees and the textiles are split into two parallel streams to be negatively sorted so that anything that is destined for the wiping cloth or flocking sectors is segregated out. The other materials are then conveyed to a higher level so that all the reusable items can then be sorted, ultimately into 162 categories of clothing that are sent out to the global market, including thousands of items of underwear each month.

The operations at the sorting site are very labour-intensive with every item that goes for reuse examined at least seven times. The goods are finely sorted and classified to distinguish between different grades of denim, for instance. Most of the grades of clothing are then bundled into small parcels but then packed into 45kg units using a compactor which seals the textiles in plastic to keep them in good condition on their lengthy journey to Africa, Pakistan or less frequently Eastern Europe.

The items that come in are reused whenever possible and there are specialist markets for particular types of item. Therefore, most leather coats (and the fur ones) are sent out to Pakistan where the leather panels in the coat are cut out and then refashioned for smaller items such as children's jackets.

Interesting finds, such as vintage clothing and shoes are often selected out to be sold off to specialist vintage clothing outlets. There are, in addition, many new items either surplus to requirements or no longer needed by retailers or corporate customers which are collected from warehouses and kept in secure storage to be selectively added to the bales of clothing for export. The last thing that any market trader selling clothing in East Africa wants is too many of any one type of item.

It is amazing that there are so many items that come through, even from the textile banks, still with the original sales labels on them and therefore unused. Is this further evidence of our proclivity to shop, shop and shop again?

The work at LMB is skilled and it takes two to three months to train someone to ensure they can fulfil the quality selection requirements. Staff turnover is limited. There are three quality assurance supervisors who spend their whole working time going around the sorting plant in order to ensure that the textiles coming out of the plant are appropriately graded.

Wipers and Flocking

While 80% of the material delivered is reusable, 20% of the items have to be sent through for recycling into other products, especially for wiping cloths and into flocking. Some of the material, especially those wool and synthetic jumpers which cannot be reused, for example, are sent to specialist reclamation companies in Yorkshire, the traditional home of textile reclamation in the UK. Here the garments are prepared for recycling by removing the stitching, which is often of an incompatible material to the rest of the garment and then the fibres are reclaimed.

Bales of textiles ready for export
Bales of textiles ready for export

The best wool fibres are used for the manufacture of new garments where appropriate and the slightly lesser quality used for blankets, as is often the fate for the synthetic fibres. More of the less-good fibres are used for mattresses, some for wadding for garments and furniture and the worst of the fibres for stuffing car dashboards, sound attenuation panels and so on.

The wiping cloths are manufactured in another of the LMB plants and then bagged up into a number of different grades. Most of these wiping cloths are sold directly to final users through LMB Supplies Ltd, another part of the LMB empire, located in a further unit on the Cody Road industrial estate.


Shoes are increasingly important, with 20 tonnes of shoes being delivered into LMB's facility each week. These are placed into reusable bags and are then sorted at another LMB site. Depending on the logistics of the container size and capacity for the final destination they may return to the North Crescent site for packing into shipping containers. Even unpaired shoes are sent off to a sorting plant in Pakistan to be matched up and then sold on!

Bags of shoes are packed with carefully selected pairs of shoes and with a specific mix of women's, children's and men's shoes and, in each bag, a pair of football boots. These bags are ultimately sold to market traders in many parts of Africa for purchase by the local population.

Outreach work, particularly through schools, has become increasingly important for LMB to support community reuse and recycling initiatives.

123 Bethnal Green Road is the latest addition to the LMB empire, a listed building being restored as a high-class fashion outlet. In another of LMB's premises items for the shop are being manufactured with each fashioned from materials generated from within the LMB's premises.


Winning London's bid for staging the 2012 Olympics caused huge upheaval to a number of waste management companies within the Lea Valley Olympic site area. One of those was Bywaters, a family company with its foundations dating back to 1952. Bywaters had three sites inside the Olympic area and has now consolidated its operations into two facilities.

The new 3.7 hectare (ha) Lea Riverside facility cost £20 million for the site and building, with a further £7 million investment in equipment. The plant includes a largely automated materials recovery facility (MRF). The existing 3.4ha facility in Leyton, 2.8km north of the Lea Riverside facility, now concentrates on processing construction and demolition wastes and has a manual MRF for sorting residual and unsorted wastes from businesses.

Boris Johnson opens the Bywaters MRF in the Lower Lea Valley
Boris Johnson opens the Bywaters MRF in the Lower Lea Valley

Subject to financial approvals, the Gateway Road site in Leyton will in future house a 100,000 tonnes-per-annum (tpa) capacity anaerobic digestion (AD) facility. The AD plant will feature an autoclave processing unit with pressures of 5 atmospheres and temperature of 160oC where waste will be heat treated for 140 minutes. This will provide a four-times-faster processing operation than conventional AD procedures according to David Rumble, strategic director for Bywaters. In addition, the plant could be used for the sterilisation of healthcare waste in future – an important future potential treatment option for this waste stream given the limited current incineration capacity for healthcare waste in London and the South East.

The Lea Riverside plant was formally opened by the then-newly-elected Mayor of London, Boris Johnson on 5 June 2008. The 187,000ft2 building has a capacity to deal with 125,000 tpa of dry recyclable waste a year at present but that is planned to double next year. The site is permitted by the Environment Agency to process up to 500,000 tpa of waste each year. In June 2009 the plant was handling 90,000 tonnes of its initial 125,000 tpa rated capacity. Of the input, on average two-thirds come from C&I sources and one-third from MSW but with expansion and subject to contracts for recyclable MSW being awarded over the next two years it is expected to be ¼ C&I and ¾ MSW when in full operating mode.

Several years ago Bywaters had asked their 2,500 commercial and industrial (C&I) waste customers what they wanted in order to make recycling easy. The response was “could you please provide us with something that is simple to understand and to use?” Hence Bywaters introduced, for its commercial waste customers, a simple system by segregating dry recyclable wastes from the other residual wastes, such as food and food contaminated paper and containers, the 'Bycycle 'system.

Bywaters estimates that the plant, handling as it does predominantly dry recyclable waste from commercial customers, is reclaiming well in excess of 90% of the incoming waste. 90% is reclaimed directly from the processing at the plant and a further 8% of mixed dirty plastic is sent for further processing to another specialist MRF in London, the majority of which is ultimately recycled. Only 2% is sent from the plant for disposal through incineration and landfill.

Inside the Bywaters facility
Inside the Bywaters facility

When the existing MRF is replicated the gypsum recycling plant and the vehicle and compactor maintenance currently taking place in the other half of the building would be displaced to the Leyton plant. The majority of the waste is delivered to the two plants through Bywaters' own transport fleet of 100 vehicles.

Currently only 42% of Bywaters' customers are separating their wastes into dry recyclable and residual waste fractions, despite considerable efforts by Bywaters sales staff to promote the system. Separating into the two streams is simple but may not be adopted, especially where the cleansing services in offices are directly controlled by a single company that is providing facilities management services for a large number of tenant companies. Because facilities management companies are frequently paid according to the number of sacks of waste discarded from their customers the introduction of a recycling service may reduce their turnover and hence potential profits.

Under the 'Bycycle' system, office waste management involves a simple two-way split into dry recyclable wastes – paper, cardboard, plastic and latterly glass – placed into orange containers with semi-transparent orange sacks inserted into the container and the residual waste is placed into a semi-transparent blue sack in a blue container. However, Bywaters has avoided the use of compartmentalised vehicles in order to ensure that the segregation of waste is never compromised. Therefore only vehicles with recyclable materials come into the Lea Riverside plant.


The equipment in the MRF has been sourced from throughout the World in order to provide the optimum mix of equipment to sort waste into merchantable quality material. Therefore there is an emphasis in the plant on automated sorting systems and reducing the number of people hand sorting waste. However, hand sorting of the waste is essential, initially in order to present material to the automated sorters without those sorters becoming clogged and also later to remove potential contaminants so that quality standards for the recovered materials can be met.

Only potentially recyclable waste enters the plant, once it arrives it is deposited on the floor and is segregated into five heaps for further sorting: pure material from known commercial sources and less pure material, two types of MSW: from inner and outer London boroughs and the final category comes from the tube system, which is predominantly free newspapers. On my most recent visit on Friday 12 June the last heap was virtually non existent after two days of the tube strike!

The waste is inspected when delivered to the plant and is examined again when being transferred to processing in the MRF. Each category is processed separately, partly in order to assess the effort required for the sorting operations and the output quality.

Bales of recyclabes which are ready to be sold on
Bales of recyclabes which are ready to be sold on

Waste goes into a pair of dosing hoppers designed to provide an even flow of waste to be sent up by conveyors to two bag splitters and those wastes are then conveyed to a first sorting cabin where plastic films and any residual waste are taken out. From there the waste goes to two American-designed automated sorters with screens to separate oversized carton and cardboard items. These oversized items, mostly cardboard and some plastic films, go over the top of the sorters and onto a conveyor where it is quality controlled through a single operative to remove non-cardboard items, mainly plastic film, and then placed into the cardboard storage hopper.

A debris roll screen is located underneath the main sorters, where glass containers drop down and most are crushed and join other items of less than 40mm. Slightly larger items, mainly paper, plastic bottles and cans fall into the 40-200mm section.

Bywaters decided not to use the long-established technology of trommel screens because the new American sorters provide a higher degree of size and material segregation. However, as with trommels, the sorters need to be kept clean. In Bywaters' case, this is at least at the end of each shift and ideally during the meal and refreshment breaks, because items such as tapes and long lengths of plastic or paper can get wound round the spaces between the cams and thus reduce their effectiveness for size sorting.

The middle-sized materials: the paper, smaller cardboard items, cans and plastic bottles mainly, are conveyed to two polishing screens, rotating sorters set at an angle of 45 degrees where the two-dimensional material is separated from the three-dimensional material through the former “floating upwards” from the thrust from the ovoid-shaped rotating cams and the latter bouncing downwards under gravity. The mainly paper and small cardboard items are then hand sorted to remove contaminants and produce a mixed paper fraction. Were the price of mixed paper to change then further sorting could be instituted and additional paper and board grades generated to add to the three currently generated. To aid this there is space for more automated sorting equipment to be installed in the plant to separate out more of the white office paper if it becomes necessary and economically viable.

The three dimensional material is processed to produce several product streams: HDPE, PET and mixed plastic containers, aluminium cans, steel cans and residual waste. Three Norwegian TiTech sorting machines segregate the plastics through near infra-red technology which monitors the refractive index of the materials passing along the conveyor and then blowing the required plastics items off the conveyor. Each of the plastic containers is pierced to ensure no whole containers are allowed through the system. This improves baling effectiveness. The three types of plastic containers are then moved by vacuum to vertical storage bunkers to await baling. An eddy current separator processes the aluminium cans and any other isolated items of non-ferrous material, again stored vertically in order to utilise the height of the building to best effect.

The less-than-40mm material is conveyed away and further processed to segregate the less than 10mm material from the 10-40mm material, after magnetic separation to remove any small ferrous items, such as paper clips. The less-than-10mm material is mainly finely shredded paper generated from security shredding, which could be part of the plant's potential refuse-derived fuel (RDF) fraction, while the larger items are pieces of glass, plastic bottle tops (mainly PP) and which might in future warrant further processing but are one of the main contributors of the plant's miniscule landfill residue. The glass was initially disposed of but is now used for aggregates. Discussions are in progress with Recresco, the specialist glass processor, in order to assess the option of colour-sorting and utilising this fraction through recycling into container glass furnaces in the future, probably linking in with other East London MRFs.

The plant's only baler is of British manufacture and has to deal with all the materials separated at the plant for materials recovery. Therefore, depending on the order in which materials are sent through to the baling operations, there is cross-contamination in a limited number of the bales. However, this can be resolved either by grading the paper/board mixes as a lower mixed grade or by breaking open plastic bottle/paper mixed bales for further processing, for example.

The material is all sold on to merchants, most of it through Valpak, the largest of the UK's packaging compliance schemes. Most of the recyclable wastes are therefore packed into containers at the site and exported, mainly to China and India.

The Bywaters team is currently evaluating the option of sending the containers from the plant by barge from a wharf immediately next to the plant on the River Lea to the container ports for transhipment in order to reduce road transport and its associated environmental impacts. However, in comparison to most other countries, in UK container ports there is little provision for inland waterway transhipment. Should the scheme go ahead and, if used intensively, the 350 tonne barges able to come up and down the Bow Creek on high tides would remove 17 heavy lorries from the roads of East London.

Plasterboard processing

The Lea Riverside plant also has a plasterboard processing facility with a maximum reprocessing capacity of 30,000 tpa but currently is operating only at 20,000 tpa. While the Environment Agency previously permitted a maximum of 10% of plasterboard to be mixed in with other wastes sent to landfill this was reduced to zero effectively in April 2009. This lowering of the allowable limit has enabled more recovery of the plasterboard formerly being sent to landfill and to limit the potential adverse effects of gypsum in landfill, mainly the generation of foul-smelling sulphur dioxide

The off-cuts of plasterboard are delivered in woven polypropylene bags provided by British Gypsum. These bags are not permitted to be re-used so they are baled at the plant for recycling. The processed plasterboard is subsequently recycled by British Gypsum at its Rogerstone Plant by separating the paper lining from the gypsum which is used to manufacture new plasterboard. In July 2008 British Gypsum announced that it would allow the plasterboard recovered by the two other main plasterboard suppliers to be processed at the Bywaters facility.

In addition to these materials there are currently a number of other wastes being processed for recycling overseas. These include Tetrapak and other carton containers that are delivered from local authorities' and superstores' bring sites throughout the region and are baled and shipped to Sweden for reprocessing, although not back into drinks cartons. There are tentative plans for the building of a plant in the UK to reprocess these drinks containers to replace the plant in Scotland that shut down in 2005. Plastic components from car shredding plants, mainly bumpers, are shipped over to China to be further sorted and reprocessed.

While there are huge amounts of material being processed for recycling plants, both in the UK and overseas, the potential for further segregation of wastes from municipal, commercial and institutional sources is enormous. Sadly there are too many waste managers who are unwilling to accept the challenge thrown down by Bywaters despite the simplicity of the initial sorting and collection systems.

ISWA comment

The ISWA group was greatly impressed by both businesses they visited. In the case of LMB our subsequent lunch break was spent trying to determine how LMB could survive financially, in that similar textile sorting operations do not exist in most other European countries and the last textile sorting facility in Vienna closed down two years ago.

In the case of Bywaters there are few similar facilities operating in the Nordic countries but there are likely to be some being developed over the next few years in order to increase recycling rates. All felt that the approach of segregation of recyclables and the use of high-grade equipment for sorting and processing of segregated dry recyclable wastes was a sound option, although most were staggered by the high cost of the site and building.

My thanks to Ray Clark of LMB and to David Rumble of Bywaters for their hosting of the ISWA visit and the frank way in which they showed the group the details of the operations on their sites.


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