Where Does Our Waste Go? Lessons from a Visit to Fortress Recycling Centre

There’s a lot of misinformation around what can and can’t be recycled. Why must waste be separated at home but not at work? What happens if waste is contaminated? Is ‘wish-cycling’ a real thing?  

To understand the truth behind the recycling process, on Wednesday 12th October Lily and Charlie joined Ashlea Mallett (sustainability adviser at Solihull and Stratford Colleges) for a visit to Fortress recycling plant based at Warwick’s Heathcote Industrial State.  

Armed with questions, our mission was to uncover some of the lesser understood mysteries about a seemingly familiar process…but one that so many of us know very little about. This is what we found:  

What happens to waste once it leaves The Farm?  

The Farm has recently introduced a co-mingled recycling scheme. This means all waste excluding food and glass – so cardboard, plastic, aluminum and other materials are all sorted via the same machinery. On arrival at the Fortress site, bins are checked manually for material which could damage the processing machinery – this includes cables and other problematic construction materials that must be sent to landfill.  

Why are materials still ending up in landfill? 

Fortress is charged £86 tax for every tonne of waste it sends to landfill – a huge incentive to extract valuable materials including copper, brass, and aluminium. Unfortunately, some materials simply cannot be recycled - meaning landfill is the only option. Despite hazardous materials still ending up in the ground, the introduction of a landfill tax in 1996 has meant that the industry is now set on extracting as much material as possible for recycling. 

What happens if the waste is contaminated? 

A major issue in the waste industry is the risk of fires. Most commonly, this results from batteries unintentionally finding their way into the processing machinery. Damage to these batteries sends out sparks, resulting in fires which are fuelled by tonnes of flammable cardboard and paper waste.   

But it’s not just batteries: shards of glass can also be hugely damaging to the highly sensitive machinery. Mixing food with other materials can also ruin efforts to recycle efficiently - this is why we do what we can at The Farm to ensure that food waste (including scraps inside otherwise recyclable containers) is kept separate to recyclable materials such as cardboard, paper and plastic.   

In addition to co-mingled waste management, sending food to be recycled at Fortress’s anaerobic digestion facility is a vital part of bringing down our greenhouse gas emissions – approximately 3% of which (in the UK) comes from the methane produced by decomposing biodegradable waste (aka food) at landfill sites.  

What is ‘wish-cycling’? 

All of us will have been guilty of ‘wish-cycling’ at one time or another – putting something non-recyclable in our recycling bins in the hope that it will be recycled. Despite the best intentions, this ends up costing recycling companies more time and money. One example from our visit was the discovery that plastic black trays, despite being made of materials that might be recycled, often end up in landfill. This is because many waste sorting systems (including the one at Fortress) use a beam of light to identify and separate out clear plastics - and are unfortunately unable to recognise black pigments. 

Where does my waste end up once it leaves Fortress?  

At the site we visited in Leamington, light compactable materials are processed into different channels – mainly to be composted, recycled, reused, or directed into energy recovery. Depending on the material, waste can be graded and reprocessed to create new products (e.g. plastic, wood, glass, cardboard and paper) sold on to third parties (e.g. buyers of metals such as brass, copper and aluminium), baled for RDF (refuse derived fuel) or, in circumstances where there’s no alternative, sent to landfill.  

What is RDF? 

RDF – refuse derived fuel – is made up of non-recyclable mixed waste which, after some processing, is shredded and sent for incineration to produce fuel. This reduces reliance on burning fossil fuels like coal and saves tonnes of waste from landfill. However, the production of greenhouse gases and toxic ash still leave a question mark over the implications for human and environmental health.  

Robert Pass, the Business Development Director at Fortress who gave us the tour, was honest to admit that in an ideal world, we wouldn’t have RDF. ‘But we don’t live in an ideal world.’  

The core of the issue lies with the material manufacturers – and we simply don’t have the capacity in the UK to cope with the amount of waste we’re consuming. 6 million tonnes of cardboard are sent for recycling annually in the UK, but currently in this country we only have the capacity to recycle 2 million tonnes. This is where greater resource management is needed to decrease the volume of waste being sent overseas for international processing.  

How do commercial and household recycling processes differ? 

Fortress deals with the waste of approximately 4,500 customers every week, all of which are commercial clients rather than domestic. But with over 4 million leasehold dwellings producing waste in the UK, Fortress is only part of the UK’s waste story.  

The way we recycle varies significantly between home and business – and that is part of the confusion. Why does recycling materials together work at The Farm but not at home? Different councils have different recycling procedures which can make the process feel impossible to understand. But at commercial recycling plants like Fortress, the infrastructure is in place to process mixed recycling together, which is why we, at The Farm, can co-mingle our waste. 

Did you know? 

Paper can only be recycled 7 times – and towards the end of its recycled life, paper is recycled into tissue which cannot be further recycled. These materials end up as RDF.  

After a morning full of lessons about the inner workings of a recycling centre, we asked Rob one final question: 

What’s one thing that companies like The Farm can do to help make your job easier? 

‘Put the right thing in the right bin. It’s as simple as that.’ So long as you’re segregating your food and glass, co-mingled waste can be processed at the recycling centre.  

As a business operating in the retail and hospitality space, The Farm understands that becoming totally zero waste will be an uphill challenge. For example, blue roll is one product that we get through a lot of at The Farm, but rigid health and safety regulations require us to favour this over reusable alternatives which may be less hygienic.  

Despite these barriers to zero waste, striving for zero waste to landfill is a more achievable aim – where at least 99% of our waste is diverted away from landfill and channeled into either composting, recycling, reuse, or energy recovery.  

A lot has changed in the 40 years that Fortress has been running – and new technological developments have meant that the company is now able to recycle waste that was once destined for landfill. With reimagined infrastructure, there is potential for businesses, including Fortress, to become even more self-sufficient.   

Thinking about the future of Fortress, Rob aspires to an entirely circular process. The company’s truck fleet remains diesel-powered until improvements are made in suitable electric alternatives – and Rob hopes that the energy derived from their anaerobic food digestion facility might one day be used as green fuel to power their vehicles. ‘That’s the dream.’   

So, what can you do? 

Quite simply, effective recycling all comes down to using the right bins. If we can do that, Fortress can streamline materials to keep as much waste as possible landfill-free.  

For customers: 

  • Separate any leftover food from graze boxes and cardboard boxes before discarding them in our general waste bins 
  • Use our designated food waste bins for organic (i.e. food) waste which can be found in the café and outside the Apple Store 

For staff: 

  • Put fruit and veg appropriate for the pigs in the wheelbarrow to help us become a more circular, waste-free business  
  • Separate any leftover food waste from general waste by using our designated food bins which can be found in the café and outside the Apple Store  

 

Written by Lily Holbrook, Environmental and Sustainability Coordinator at The Farm Stratford