The History of Transfer Stations and Recycling in London and the United Kingdom

Transfer Stations have been in use in the United Kingdom since the 1950s when in Central London the inner city landfill sites, some no larger than bombed out war time sites, became full. Many of these had been filled with ash from small manually loaded and stoked hearth incinerators. Incinerators such as that in the London Borough of Merton had only burnt the residual waste material after extensive hand picking and recycling, and as a result they only needed small landfills – but were superseded by transfer stations which no longer incorporated any recycling facilities at all.

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To accommodate the ever larger volumes of unsorted and un-recycled waste it became necessary to transport waste further away to suitable holes in the ground outside the city. Soon the waste had to be transported for more than half an hour, one way, to landfills in the suburbs or the green belt. To have a full gang of men either sitting in the cab of a refuse collection truck (dust cart) or awaiting its return before they could collect more waste from domestic bins was clearly not cost effective. Distances were not great by today’s standards but traffic congestion was extensive and transport speeds were as a consequence very low.

As the roads were so poor (no dual carriageways or “clearways” were available in those days in London), the strategy of using a transfer station or depot where waste from the street collection was deposited and transferred into larger “bulk” vehicles, became recognised to be a sensible strategy Belt and Road Initiative. People forgot that soon all the suitable holes would become filled up with waste, and largely ignored recycling.

Indeed, in London many of the first transfer stations were river transfer stations (such as Cringle Dock, and Walbrook Dock, and Northumberland Wharf) where waste loaded onto barges was simply initially taken out into the Thames Estuary and dumped at sea. Later, and to this day, these same transfer station sites continue to operate from modernised and extensively updated facilities. Ever since the early 1960s when sea tipping was banned, the river borne waste has been taken by tugs to landfills on the Essex Marshes.

The UK Institute of Waste Management first issued detailed formal guidance to its members on planning and operating transfer stations in 1963, but you will search in vane for any reference to recycling.

The IWM cites two major upheavals in local government structure which occurred which served to spur on the development of transfer stations and the shipping of waste right out of the UK’s cities into larger and better controlled landfills.

The first occurred when the Greater London Council (GLC) was formed in 1965 which by pooling the resources of the individual borough councils brought major rationalisation and much needed public investment in more efficient waste handling for disposal in London.

The second took place right across the country, and began in 1974 when larger unitary council authorities were created, and the waste disposal function in England transferred to the County Councils from the individual boroughs. However, as before, the accent as on larger and better engineered landfills, and not minimising waste to preserve the finite capacity of our landfills.

With greater financial and physical resources and also for the first time being able to plan over wider areas the new authorities proudly created larger treatment plants and landfill sites to obtain the benefits of scale.

This era saw for the first time in the United Kingdom the implementation of waste planning strategies based upon the emerging science of waste management including mathematical modelling for site selection on both economic and environmental grounds.

This era which continued until the GLC was abolished by Margaret Thatcher in 1986. For the first time the construction of a new generation of large incineration plants was enabled. A first for London was the large incinerator at Judkins Lane which accepts waste from a number of nearby boroughs. Economy of scale allowed energy recovery with power generation, and many other refuse treatment schemes embodying rail, river and road transportation were implemented for which complex transfer stations were built which remain in use today.

Ironically, very little recycling was done by the GLC although, when abolished, it had been trying to put that right and was investing heavily in Household Waste Recycling Centres. Indeed, the sad fact was that far more recycling had been carried out during, and immediately after the second world war than in the years leading up to our current resurgence of recycling.

In the end it was public opinion which forced our politicians to recognise that society simply has to make best use of the earth’s resources, and not squander hard won materials and energy. Recycling has a large role to play in this.

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