The Hemswell bottle recycling plant in Lincolnshire is the largest facility of its kind in Europe – and will soon be the biggest in the world. It processes half the plastic bottles collected for recycling in the UK. Kieran Long visits a hidden world and wonders how 21st-century factories like this will shape the cities of the future.
Hemswell, Lincolnshire is an abandoned airfield just off the A15. There is an audible hum in the air and a lone forklift zips backwards and forwards between a truck and a cavernous warehouse. Next to a field of high corn, another portal-framed supershed is under construction, a massive building site with very few workers on it.
This series of sheds processes half of all the bottles collected for recycling in the UK: 100,000 tonnes of them a year. Soon that will expand to 145,000 tonnes per year, making it without question the largest bottle sorting plant in the world. It is strategically located (near the centre of the country), high tech and profitable. It is the green economy – that politician's cliche – for real.
Vince Cable, the business secretary, recently betrayed his naivety about UK manufacturing, and what making things really means. He visited Jaguar Land Rover, and was impressed by how "clean, sophisticated, highly-skilled and gender neutral" the production lines were, an unthreatening vision of how manufacturing doesn't need to hurt, and won't offend anyone. It's just like an office job, he wanted to say.
He should go to Hemswell. Here, the overlapping, stacked conveyor lines that sort and process the bottles make for a noisy, dirty, hot place. Everything vibrates. It is certainly extremely sophisticated, and jobs here are skilled, but it's not pretty. Sweaty looking guys hang from speeding conveyor belts monitoring, unblocking and unhooking ("video tape, it's a nightmare that stuff," the boss says to me as he curses an obsolete technology that interferes with the machines). There is a sickly sweet smell in the air, a consequence of the residue from millions of bottles. It's how I imagine death in a hot country smells, or that lily in Kew Gardens that only opens once a year and reeks of rotting flesh.
I've visited car plants all over Europe, and you can see why they are the poster boys for manufacturing as far as politicians are concerned. They produce very luxurious goods. Yes, people have to get into debt to buy them, and they fuck up cities and the environment, but their factories look great, and the machines look like the Mark 1 Terminator.
The building is a former aircraft hangar
Hemswell bottle sorting plant is manufacturing, but it feels more like mining than making. Recycling plastic on this scale is like exploiting a natural resource. Humans have sucked all the oil out of the North Sea, and now it circulates around the world in the form of plastic bottles and margarine tubs.
This geyser of plastic was untapped until Eco Plastics managing director Jonathan Short, like a prospector, began to think of ways to marshal it. He used to work in scrap metal, so for him, there's gold in the things we waste. He persuaded manufacturers and supermarkets to install balers to compress plastic waste into large cubes that are efficient to transport. He hired a former aircraft hangar in Lincolnshire and imported machinery from Germany to put in it.
The machinery that is the star of the show. Two sorting lines hoist the deconstructed bales up high into the rafters on conveyors, and then the gravity-assisted sorting process begins. The speed is astonishing. The plastics bottles are spread out on broad conveyors travelling at high velocity, and they enter what are known as "ballistic separators". This is a glorious name for an amazing machine. A camera uses infra-red light to examine the bottles as they pass beneath it, and in a millisecond detects which polymer it is made of. The bottles that are "positively selected" (in the first case, valuable polyethylene terephthalate – PET – is made back into food-grade quality plastic pellets) are blown upwards by tiny, high-pressure nozzles, controlled by the information from the camera. These are caught by another conveyor belt. The "negatively selected" plastic drops downwards onto another conveyor, and goes through this process again.
The outcome of this massive, computer controlled meccano set is huge containers of separated materials. PET and "Jazz PET" (industry jargon for coloured PET) are cleaned and recycled on site, while many other products (including high-density polyethylene, polypropylene, PVC, films and other plastics, steel and aluminium cans and paper from labels) are separated and sold for reprocessing. Paper is sent to waste-to-energy plants.
The PET goes into an adjoining, steam-filled warehouse, where it is shredded, further filtered – any tiny flake of metal or other plastic affects the quality of the final product – repeatedly cleaned, then melted in heat and vacuum reactors. One of the shocks of my visit was entering the room where this final process takes place, and seeing on the floor huge, globular pieces of blue-ish plastic that were dead ringers for something from Jerszy Seymour's Scum installation. These strange plastic pieces were far from a conceptual design project: they are just the casual waste product of this epic exercise in waste management.
Is this place all function? Not quite. The machines whizzing all this plastic around are blue, and you do get a choice, Short says. After all, bespoke machinery of this kind is not exactly mass produced. "You could have it pink if you wanted," he says, although he seems to me like the last man who would ever choose pink for this job. Stadler, the German firm that makes the machinery, has delivered green ones to a facility in Italy. "A green recycling plant ... I think that's just a bit cheesy. Blue looks cleaner for longer, so we chose blue," he explains in his characteristic clipped style. All the associated machines are also blue, including the cherry pickers and other mobile machinery – a kind of neutral uniform. It's a choice that places function over rhetoric.
The potential of this young industry is thrilling, and potentially endless. It must – and will – become a part of the way we think about cities and urban development. This year's expansion will mean that Eco Plastics is responsible for 70 percent of the country's production of recycled PET. As facilities like this get larger, will they spawn their own towns around them, the green economy version of Yorkshire pit towns? What would they look like? Can architecture and design play a role in making us as proud of facilities like this, as we should be?
Short wants to dispel myths about recycling in the sceptical UK. It really does happen, he says. The plastic you put in your recycling bins is not being buried or sitting in warehouses with nowhere to go. We have the capacity with our existing infrastructure to increase plastic recycling and we have the places where it can go to be processed. The material doesn't have to decline in quality as it passes through the cycle – food-grade plastic is made here – and there is ample demand, as proven by Eco Plastics' recent supply deal with Coca Cola.
Finally, Brits don't need to go to Germany or Scandinavia to see leading-edge recycling technology. We have it here already.
The process separates the plastic into huge containers