Waste collection managed by local authorities

Eight West Midlands-based local authorities have joined together to manage a local recycling plant, improving recycling and bringing down costs.

The challenge facing local authorities (LAs) regarding recyclate processing, is the legislative requirement to collect Dry Mixed Recycling (DMR) from residential kerbsides – while relying solely on the private sector to manage the processing, commodity sale, and residual disposal. In doing this, local authorities accept a number of risks without the ability to manage them. 

Chief among these are the escalating treatment costs driven by demand rather than operating costs; general uncertainty in the marketplace regarding the Future of Waste Strategy; instability and short-term commitments in commodity offtake; and the ever-evolving dynamics of consumer habits and recyclate markets. 

Off the back of failed procurements, and an ever-growing frustration with the marketplace, a number of Local Authorities asked the question, ‘what else could be done’ to ease their waste management difficulties and concerns. The answer turned out to be, Sherbourne Resource Park (SRP).

The new, state-of-the-art Materials Recycling Facility (MRF) is the result of eight West Midlands-based local authorities working together to secure a stable, flexible, and long-term solution to the processing of their residential kerbside DMR. 

The uniqueness of the facility (SRP), can be seen throughout, including its operating company, Sherbourne Recycling, which is as cutting-edge as the technologies used to process the waste. 

All eight local authority shareholders wholly funded the facility, across what is a 25-year waste supply agreement seeing the partners work together in unison during this time. The eight partners who have invested in Sherbourne Recycling, and Sherbourne Resource Park are: Coventry City Council, North Warwickshire Borough Council, Nuneaton and Bedworth Borough Council, Rugby Borough Council, Stratford-on-Avon District Council, Solihull Metropolitan Borough Council, Walsall Council, and Warwick District Council. 

Their collaborative approach highlights a turning point in the industry, setting a new standard for local authority cooperation and innovation in waste management. While Sherbourne Resource Park was built and modelled to serve the eight authorities as its main objective, and without the need for any commercial opportunities, the potential for this growth does exist. 

Any additional customers to the original eight would benefit themselves from incredibly competitive dividends and operating costs. Already, Sherbourne processes recycling from 1.5 million homes across the West Midlands, with both the appetite and capacity for growth.

Innovative technologies and flexibility

Sherbourne Resource Park has provided its partners with a recyclate management solution able to adapt and flex to changes in waste composition and legislation, while ensuring a focus on producing industry-leading levels of recyclate.

Not only this, but the structure of the company, Sherbourne Recycling, and how it operates has provided all its partners with the agility and flexibility to adapt to a constantly evolving market. The 12,000m2 purpose built state-of-the-art facility is capable of processing an average 47.5tn of waste an hour, and up to 175,000tn per annum – lending itself to the phrase ‘Mega MRF’. 

One of the MRF’s main selling points is the technology it uses. Alongside more traditional and expected waste separation tech such as trommels and screens lie optical sorters, and robotic arms which are controlled by AI technology. 

In fact, Sherbourne utilises 18 SamurAI® sorting robots, 14 optical sorters, and 14 AI units, which alongside the traditional tech result in industry-leading purity levels across all material factions. Because of the high-quality recyclate produced, Sherbourne can proudly claim that all of its materials stay in the U.K. to be reused – helping contribute to the company’s sustainability commitments and the wider circular economy as a whole. The innovative aspect of Sherbourne Resource Park is certainly its use of AI technology and cloud-based software in the waste separation process.

The AI is programmed to extract materials from lines which shouldn’t be there, determining materials through composition and product recognition – all via data stored in a cloud.

It is the AI system which identifies the distinguishing features of material composition in the same way as a human eye – including in dirty and changing conditions. Using a task-hierarchy system, the AI controls the robotic arms, ordering them to remove any residue or contaminants, achieving this at up to 70 picks a minute – almost double the average of a human picker. While a high degree of automation is used throughout the waste separation process, the human influence at Sherbourne is very much still a crucial part. 

While an average MRF may have dozens of human pickers across a line, Sherbourne can operate with just half-a-dozen. Instead, it has upskilled the jobs at its facility to the roles of engineers, technicians, and software controllers it calls ‘SCADA operators’, who together form the majority of the operations team which runs the facility on a day-to-day basis.

Having such autonomy across the process allows Sherbourne to adapt quickly to changes in residential material composition, government legislative requirements, or any forthcoming scheme introductions affecting the core recycled materials. However, planning for the future, Sherbourne is already capable of targeting plastic film from residential kerbside collections way ahead of forthcoming legislation that sees this as a requirement for its local authority partners – and SRP is believed to be the first facility of its size in the country to be able to do so.

An example of the facility’s flexibility is its correction around PET trays which in one stream were accounting for up to 30 per cent of total material in a bale. Asked by its offtaker to remove PET trays from a particular material stream, Sherbourne set about reprogramming its software and instructing its AI system, and over the course of just 48 hours, saw the results of PET in the same stream at under 3 per cent total.

Sustainability and growth

Sherbourne Recycling operates with sustainability at its core, drawing power from its neighbouring Energy-from-Waste (EfW) plant, and sourcing energy from its photovoltaic cells on its roof. And, with zero residue going to landfill and an all-electric-powered forklift fleet, the company embodies the principles of a circular economy, minimising its carbon footprint and maximising resource efficiency.

Beyond its technological prowess, Sherbourne also looks to prioritise social values, investing in employee training, apprenticeship opportunities, and working with community groups and educational facilities in the areas it services to teach the region about its innovative approach to recycling.

As a real living wage employer with a generous benefits package, the facility exemplifies a holistic approach to sustainability that extends beyond environmental considerations to encompass social and economic well-being. Looking ahead, Sherbourne Recycling is poised for continued growth and expansion, fuelled by the success of Sherbourne Resource Park and the company’s commitment to innovation in the waste industry.

Expansion plans may include the development of additional facilities or the integration of new technologies to further enhance efficiency and recyclate quality.

Moreover, Sherbourne’s unique and collaborative business model holds the key to success for Local Authorities across the country to take control of their waste management and emulate the company’s success in their own regions.

There is certainly no doubt that by leveraging cutting-edge technology, implementing a collaborative partnership across local authorities, and a steadfast commitment to environmental stewardship, that Sherbourne Recycling has redefined the boundaries of what is possible in recycling waste management. 

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