On Friday, together with half-a-dozen other councillors, I climbed into a mini bus for a quick journey up North Road to visit John Wade's recycling centre at Aycliffe Quarry near the A1M.
John Wade has won the new contract to handle our waste and recycling when the current contract with Durham County Council expires next year.
Planning permission has just been applied for to build the series of seven tunnels in which Darlington's waste will be aerobically digested, so as yet there's nothing to see, except a promotional video from the German manufacturers. There is, however, a pretty impressive hole in the ground, watched over by the biggest seagulls I've ever seen.
From a PR point of view, this was a successful visit. The commitment and enthusiasm of the company for the recycling agenda was evident. Gone are the days, which we've all seen in photos and film, when bin lorries simply dumped their entire contents onto an ever-increasing pile of windswept rubbish.
As, my first photo above shows, the centre is constantly busy with a steady stream of lorries and vans bringing waste to the site. This is then taken to the appropriate area for processing, either straight to recycling, or, if it's mixed waste, offloaded to be picked over by "grabbers", which try to extract the larger recyclable items. The remainder then goes to the landfill site: the hole in the ground from which the limestone has already been quarried. This is carefully contructed using peat-lined plastic membranes to seal all the rubbish in.
The new system will see the mixed waste being put into one of a series of tunnels where the waste will break down in a matter of a couple of weeks into an inert mass which will be landfilled. However, before it is put into the ground, machines will extract from it all the plastics, metal and glass for recycling: a far higher percentage than the grabbers manage at the moment.
This system raises some important questions which the Council says it will consult on.
Because the new system can extract all the glass. metal and plastic for recycling from our waste, will there be any point in continuing to collect it seperately from the kerbside? An interesting psychological point here, though: people like to put their bottles, cans and plastics out for recyclng: it makes us feel we're doing our bit.
The new system cannot extract paper and cardboard in a clean enough form to recycle, so perhaps cardboard should be added to paper for kerbside recycling. Also, green garden waste can be put into one of the tunnels for making into real compost: perhaps we should introduce a separate green waste collection.
It will be interesting to see the public's reaction when consultation starts, and how ambitious the Council is to go beyond the bare minimum it can get away with.