Visiting our local recycling centre – Part 1 (By Melissa Vaughn)

Here at Eco Passion we are always looking for ideas and ways that we can help reduce our waste and live a lifestyle that is more sustainable and environmentally friendly. We support European Week for Waste Reduction.

The European Week for Waste Reduction (EWWR) is held annually in November. If you have not heard of European Week for Waste Reduction or the awards, you can view their facebook page or website ( for more information. The website is full of ideas on how to reduce waste and live a more environmentally friendly lifestyle.

To tie in with EWWR in November 2018, Eco Passion organised a ‘Trip to the Tip’ to visit the recycling plant in our local community of Casares in Málaga. One of our group who attended, writer and active member of the local community, Melissa Vaughn, was inspired to write a full account of the trip to help others get a sense of the amount of work that is done at our local recycling plant, and how we can all do more to generate less waste.

Read her detailed first-hand account of how our local plant sorts our waste here in the Estepona/Casares area of the Málaga province in Spain.

Visit to Urbaser recycling plant, Casares, Spain

In November 2018 a group of about 20 locally-based men, women and children took a ‘Trip to the Tip’ organised by Eco Passion, which is owned and run by Sarah Spencer. We went by private bus to the central processing plant for refuse, called Urbaser, which is located at a large, government-controlled, processing centre in the hills, which is the Pedregales area of Casares.

We were greeted by an excellent Spanish guide, Jesus, who welcomed us to the Urbaser visitor centre and explained the waste processing system to us, showing us a glassed-in, scale model of this expansive, and very busy recycling centre. He answered our questions in Spanish with several members of our party providing an English translation, then our guide showed us to our seats in the adjacent auditorium. We watched an informative video on how each stage of the waste processing process is linked to the next.

We were walked through the process, onscreen, from the moment that the enormous trash trucks arrive, fully loaded with waste, right through to how the rubbish is processed and compacted. Plus, Jesus provided us the (staggering) facts and figures regarding the volume of rubbish the plant processes, and disturbingly, the continual percentage increase in turnover – in other words the tonnage of refuse the plant faces, goes on steadily increasing year by year as we continue a worrying trend of ever-increasing our domestic waste output.

Urbaser is processing domestic refuse continuously:
24hrs a day, 365 days a year and from a large geographical area: Benahavis, Istan, Fuengirola, Torremolinos, Ojen, Marbella, Estepona, Casares, Duquesa, Sabinillas and Manilva. As you can imagine, the sheer amount of waste generated by an area as large as this is astonishing, and it all converges in massive trucks, making their way to this one location, for sorting and recycling.

Even nowadays, not all waste can be recycled.
The plant must also act as the final resting place of items such as unwanted beds, clapped-out bicycles, rusted fridges and outdated furniture. Where do these items go? We move onto the controversial problem of landfill. Because burning refuse is against clean-air laws, a certain percentage of waste cannot be recycled or burnt and must be crushed, then buried. 

A sobering moment was when our guide pointed to 3 large domed hills nearby; grass-covered and green with some shrubs growing on top. A pretty sight until you realise the truth, because, despite appearances, only one of the three hills is actually ‘real’. The other two are man-made and crammed with compacted cast-offs, formed into blocks like huge dominoes, stacked on top of each another.  

How are such compacted blocks created?
If you opened the mound today you would not recognise the original items as they are compacted onsite alongside other bulky items, squashing them all together into heavy blocks, each about the size of a small car, before those blocks are mechanically loaded, one on top of the other, into the pit in the ground.

How is the landfill site prepared?
Beginning as enormous, conical holes that are dug into the ground, each huge pit is lined with thick plastic sheeting in an attempt to minimise seepage of toxic liquids in the years to come, once the pit has been sealed off. The hole in the ground is progressively land-filled over time with compacted blocks of unrecyclable rubbish. Once the hole is filled it then begins to grow upwards from flat land into a ‘hill’. As it rises, higher and higher, dumper trucks circle around the ever-growing ‘mountain’ of trash, piling up all the blocks of unwanted, unrecyclable bulky items that we spoilt, 21st century earth-dwellers have discarded.

Once the mound reaches the maximum height that’s considered safe, it is then cosmetically ‘disguised’ as a real hill. So we have a towering pile of corroding cast-offs, sealed into plastic, dusted with soil and a few purposely-planted shrubs atop, to lend a natural image to the scene. The occasional ‘chimney’ pipe in the hill to allow flammable gases such as methane, from inside the chamber to vent, would be the only visible clue to a hiker on the crest of the hill, that all was not what it seemed, underfoot.

This is the physical scar formed from the blight of consumerism our modern society shamefully suffers with. In terms of weight, we throw away five times more garbage per person, than our grandparents did. In 1960 we disposed, each year of waste that amounted to the weight of a pig, per person. Now we each toss out waste that equates to the weight of a cow, every year. Our instantly-disposable way of thinking about commodities means that land-fill has now become a global menace and we are running out of natural space for permanently storing unrecyclable refuse.   

How is the waste actually processed?At the Urbaser waste processing centre we learnt that there are three pathways for refuse that enters the plant:

– Recyclables (plastics, metal, paper, cardboard, glass)
– Organic material (composted on site)
– Other refuse that is neither recyclable nor compostable. This is destined for landfill.

Glass is collected at the plant and then sold to another company which deals with washing and then processing the glass to recycle it. Regarding paper and cardboard, this is not pulped at Urbaser but is collected, baled and sold to another firm that then deals with the actual recycling.  In this way the local council are generating funds from the sale of glass, paper and cardboard to another party. One can only imagine how much it costs to run and staff this enormous (and progressively growing!) processing plant 24hrs a day, 365 days a year so, to my mind anyhow, it’s a little irritating that some members of the public begrudge local government ‘earning’ something from our rubbish.

The normal size rubbish trucks we are familiar with deposit their loads into extra-large vehicles which then make their way to the Casares URBASER processing plant. On arrival these vehicles pass into the compound and drive onto a special weighbridge where they are weighed. After that, the vehicle proceeds to the dumping area. This is a zone of several enormous concrete-lined pits, side by side to which the vehicle backs up and ejects the full load of rubbish, down into a huge pit. A jumbled mess of general rubbish falls into the pits and is then grabbed by an enormous moveable industrial grasper (think of the yellow one in “Toy Story” but much, much, bigger to the point of out-sizing a car!). The grabber takes sections of rubbish and deposits them onto the first of a series of conveyor belts that begin the process of sorting.

Sorting at the plant is done by the following means:

Metal items within the jumbled rubbish jump upwards from the moving conveyors to attach themselves to huge magnets as the conveyor of refuse passes beneath. However as most people know, only iron-containing metals (such as cobalt and nickel) react to a magnet, so further stages are involved in the extraction of metals.

After the magnets have done their work, the remaining rubbish enters an enormous revolving machine the size of a large room, (which looks like a greatly magnified washing machine drum). The refuse enters and as the drum slowly revolves it is turned constantly while the rubbish is falling continuously. Organic material drops through small holes in the metal walls and is gathered for composting onsite. Our guide, Jesus, told us that the inner walls are sharp and rip open plastic sacks of household rubbish, throwing their contents around inside where items of different weights and sizes fall through different sized holes. He made our knees quake when he told us that this enormous drum is quite capable of tearing a human body to pieces!

Industrial optical checks are done as well as human optical checks. They are carried out on items moving on a conveyor where many staff are sorting rubbish passing in front of them. There are also machines at the plant with special optical ability that are capable of sorting rubbish of different kinds.

Lightweight items are automatically pushed off the conveyor at appropriate points according to their weight. There is also an ‘induction’ stage.

The above stages ensure that like is matched with like and eventually a used Coke can, for example, will end up with all the other used cans, and tetra-paks will be sectioned with all the other similar items and so on. We did a coach-driven tour around the actual machinery in use and it was fascinating. We were able to watch as machines processed various items and we saw, for example, items such as rigid black plastic baskets used by the fishing industry, drink cans and bales of used newspapers successfully sectioned out in huge piles and awaiting onward transportation to the appropriate recycling area.

What’s in the average domestic rubbish bin?

Here is a break-down of what the average household in Spain is disposing into street bins, on a weekly basis:
Organic (biodegradable) material = 60%
Paper/Card = 13%
Other = 11%
Plastics = 10%
Glass = 3%
Metal = 3%

As you can see, organic material (fruit and vegetable waste as well as meat and fish bones etc.) makes up the highest percentage component of household waste and is biodegradable – hurrah! The process of composting is an important aspect of the work that is carried out at Urbaser. Huge, roofed storage areas contain decomposing piles of organic matter that are in the process of becoming what we recognise to be ‘compost’. They are patrolled and frequently turned by huge diggers that rotate the piles of rotting matter in order to air it and prevent it from overheating which can cause self-combustion!

These gigantic composting sheds are the source of the ‘heady odour’ at Urbaser! It used to be that after a period of time, when the organic solids have broken down, that the resulting compost used to be available for sale to members of the public to use on their own gardens. However, nowadays, Urbaser cannot guarantee that every little piece of plastic has been successfully removed from the compost that they generate. Not wanting to risk a possible lawsuit from a household who maybe decided to use the compost to grow their own veg, but was not aware of the risk of such plastics ending up in their food, for example, Urbaser now only supplies its compost to local government where it is used in street-side planters, beside roads and in the central part of roundabouts and so on, for the creation of council-maintained flower beds.

To read more about what we learned at the visit to the Urbaser recycling plant, please look out for Part 2 where we will talk about the various containers, what can and can’t be recycled and what we can all do, and should be doing, to reduce our waste.