Bookham’s Litter Pickers visit the Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) at Leatherhead

In late November, eight members of Bookham’s litter picking team visited Leatherhead’s MRF site, which is where the contents of our green recycling wheelie bins are taken.  This is next door to Leatherhead’s Community Recycling Centre (CRC) – the ‘dump’ – where you can take your bulk waste and also recycle certain items that mustn’t go in your green bin.  The MRF is operated by Grundon on behalf of Mole Valley, Elmbridge and Woking councils and the CRC by Suez on behalf of Surrey.

Grundon’s Paul Faulkner hosted our tour, giving us an informative and amusing explanation of how it all works.  Leatherhead’s MRF processes 40,000 tonnes of mixed recycling annually, with a typical throughput of 100+ tonnes per day.  To achieve this, everything needs to be kept moving smoothly. Trucks need to unload and go back out on the road quickly so they keep to schedule.  Any site issues or overloads will mean truck diversions to Grundon’s higher capacity Colnbrook plant that operates on a 24 hour basis.

Similarly, the trucks that collect baled recyclables operate to a tight timetable to avoid building ups at the end of the process.

The price Grundon receives is related to the quality of their sorting and the level of contamination by other materials.  There are strict rules and limits on that so the whole process, including the level of contamination in the sorted recycling, is audited regularly by both the authorities and customers who reprocess Grundon’s baled materials.  The basic economics of the operation seem to be:

  1. Grundon is paid by Councils to take the mixed recycling,
  2. they incur costs in operating the MRF,
  3. they sell on the processed materials for further material specific processing, and
  4. they incur costs to get rid of the stuff that’s not sold.

So ‘1 + 3’ has to be bigger than ‘2 + 4’.

Currently it is economic to separate out:

  • Paper (including newspapers, magazines, catalogues and envelopes) – must be as dry as possible as there are limits on final moisture content
  • Cardboard – again must be dry
  • Steel tins
  • Aluminium drinks cans
  • HDPE (high-density polyethylene) plastic bottles
  • PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic bottles
  • Glass (all colours accepted)


We were reassured that the mountains of mixed waste in China etc that you’ve seen on TV are not coming from Leatherhead!  Grundons typically sell on to UK based processors although some may be in Europe.  The price they get tends to fluctuate over time as does the availability of facilities to recycle further materials.  They are currently running a trial of processing plastic trays of certain polymers such as PET and HDPE – previously they were only recycled as bottles.

Each recycling vehicle is logged as it enters at the front and tips its load.  This means Grundon can keep an eye on which areas are doing really well and which areas, dare we say, produce loads that need extra scrutiny!

Material, which at this stage is rather compacted, is then moved by a digger shovel into the hopper at the beginning of the conveyor system.  Glass is removed very early (to avoid breakages contaminating other waste) and crushed in to sand for recycling such as road aggregates.  Also removed at this stage are all the items totally unsuitable for mixed recycling but which ‘helpful’ members of the public include; this includes textiles and electricals which have separate recycling collections (and are taken to the CRC).

The series of conveyors jiggle the waste to separate the various components.  Steel tins are removed by magnet, PET and HDPE bottles are separated by optical sensors, and the conveyors also pass through a series of hand sorting areas where a team of experienced sorters pick out unwanted materials (e.g. plastic films and bags) and separate out cardboard from the paper.

Finally, the separated recyclable material is baled and taken away by specialist processors.  Material that Grundon doesn’t separate for reprocessing is taken to Colnbrook where they have an Energy from Waste plant.

MVDC provides each household with a leaflet on what can go in our green wheelie bin but we had lots questions to ask.  Here is what we found out:

General advice

  • Rinse out or wash containers where possible (an exception is bleach bottles)
  • Paper and card should be dry and not contaminated by food waste or grease
  • Tops and lids of all types may be left on bottles and other containers; metal wine bottle tops are definitely worth money to their processors
    • With milk bottle tops you can take them to St Nicolas Church who raise money for charity by recycling them
  • No need to remove labels from bottles, jars, tins unless they come off easily
  • No need to remove sticky tape or labels or staples from paper or card

Definite ‘no’s

  • Black plastic cannot currently be recycled.
  • Plant pots – we believe these can be taken to Squires Garden Centres at Horsley and Stoke D’Abernon
  • Aerosols
  • Waxed paper or sealable brown bags from the butcher
  • Prefer not to receive pump or trigger tops from plastic bottles as can’t be recycled
  • Beer bottle tops will fall through conveyor

Yes to

  • Window envelopes
  • Bulk shredded paper acceptable

In theory can take, but…

  • wrapping paper and Christmas cards but only if it is not metallised or plasticised and no glitter or cards with batteries – note that Surrey Environment Partnership are encouraging recycling but to leave cards with batteries or glitter or wrapping that is metallised or plastic lined on the shelf!
  • In theory small bits of paper, credit card slips, train tickets can be recycled but in practice may fall through the cracks in the conveyor.

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