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Current Past




Walk 3, Rainham: Plastic

At Rainham, we visit Veolia’s plastic recovery facility or PRF. Here, dozens of different kinds of plastic are sorted before being baled according to their types; one stack of bales for milk bottles, one for clear bottles, one for crisp packets and so on. These bales are then distributed to another specialist plant, where they are shredded and melted back into polymer pellets. These pellets are then sold on to be used in plastic manufacturing.

It’s a forensic operation at Rainham, each piece of plastic being endless scrutinised, weighed, and separated. The technology they use to do so is aptly called Magpie. First, the waste is loaded onto a conveyor belt that shoots through the whole building. Like a stream gushing under a bridge, the conveyor belt passes under a great magnet, removing any specks of metal that have snuck into the waste. The plastic then passes under a huge scanner, shooting beams of light into the plastic and gauging its reflection. Translucent milk bottles, for instance, reflect far less than clear plastic. The most reflective material is then diverted off into a new stream, ready to be baled. The process repeats itself, with the second less reflective plastic re-circulating through the scanner, until it too siphoned off, before the plastic loops back once again, the third most reflective plastic being removed and baled, and so on.

In the PRF there are also sealed stations for the human ‘operatives’ known as pickers. It’s a relentless job. We watch them stationed on either side of the river of moving plastic. They are there to discern by eye and intervene by hand. They were working in quick and mechanised rhythms, reaching in and tossing away specs of newspaper, film, other non-recyclables. Each worker has a barrel bin, where this waste ends up is unclear. At the end of all the processes, the bailed plastic is brought out and laid up in a grid, ready for distribution.

Blog: Eloise Hawser
Images: Frances Christie, Hayley Dixon, and Eloise Hawser

This event was presented as part of 800,000 tonnes: Waste Management and Recycling in Essex, a programme of displays, site tours, and discussions that took place to map waste in Essex past and present by artist Eloise Hawser, who wrote the above text. 800,000 tonnes was supported by a National Lottery Grant from Arts Council England.

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Radical Essex is a project re-examining the county in relation to radicalism in thought, lifestyle, politics and architecture. A programme of events will take place across Essex throughout 2016 and 2017, shedding light on the vibrant, pioneering thinking of the late 19th and 20th centuries. The project will celebrate the crucial role Essex has played in the history of British Modernism and its utopian ideologies under the themes ‘The Modernist County’ and ‘Arcadia for All’.

The Radical Essex site is designed by Fraser Muggeridge studio and Alex Rich, developed by Twelve.

Radical Essex is led by Focal Point Gallery in collaboration with Visit Essex and Firstsite. Supported using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England it forms part of the country wide Cultural Destinations programme, a partnership with VisitEngland, supporting arts organisations to work with the tourism sector to deliver projects that maximise the impact culture has on local economies.

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We gratefully acknowledge the support of our project partners: