A crinkled ketchup bottle, the shiny red lid of a Celebrations box, a single plastic glove – all these items were once used in a household somewhere in West Sussex before being tossed into the recycling bin, never to cross the mind of their owner ever again.
But their life did not end there – within two weeks they were carted across the county and down a long quiet country road to the materials recycling facility in Ford.
In a cavernous room, these are just three of the discarded tokens of everyday life that have joined a complex network of more than 100 conveyor belts – a giant contraption that brings to mind Wallace and Gromit’s inventions.
From a viewing platform up above, unit manager Russ Tuppen shouts over the steady din of the machinery, pointing out the eight orange boxes strategically positioned along the conveyor belts.
It is these that are key to the whole operation, the ‘really clever’ part that makes the facility in Ford – which handles between 70k and 75k tonnes of recycling per year – one of the most technologically advanced in the country.
These eight optical scanners identify the items, expertly judging them by size, dimension or plastic type, so that they can be separated by material-type into different streams.
Below us, a conveyor belt made up exclusively of newspaper and pamphlets makes its way to the final destination where it will be bundled up onto one of many single-material bales.
The plant, which is actually just ‘a big sorting machine’, is able to sort five different plastics and is one of the only facilities of its kind which can accept black plastic, which it sends to a sister site for sorting.
Random inspections ensure that the bales are of a high quality, boasting a purity of more than 95 per cent – but what comes out of the plant depends on what comes in, and that’s why residents throwing away the wrong kinds of things can cause problems, Mr Tuppen explains.
While most of the sorting is automated, four people are involved at an early stage in identifying anything that should not be there.
Nappies are among the most common offenders, as well as black plastic bags.
Mr Tuppen said the team had found ammunition and shot cartridges – even a dead animal once.
Batteries are also a ‘real issue’, particularly the lithium batteries from mobile phones; their small size makes them difficult to spot but they can cause explosions.
But one of the biggest problem is contamination with food and liquid.
The sauce from a half-full mayo jar dumped in a bin is likely to leak out and affect all the other materials inside.
Chunks of food left caked-onto plastic bottles, like tomato sauce, can also confuse the optical scanner into sorting it as the wrong type of plastic.
This is why one of the key messages from the team at the moment is that recycled items should be clean, dry and loose.
So what happens next to the bales of materials?
These are shipped by lorry to various re-processors and manufacturers where they are recycled into new goods – with 2/3 of the bales being dealt with within the UK.
“We are trying hard now to ship less abroad because it’s become too complicated and challenging,” Mr Tuppen said.
Demand is also growing for recycled materials here in the UK from producers, which is spurring on industry efforts to set up more facilities for re-processing.
“The demand is now currently outstripping capacity in the UK,” Mr Tuppen said.
Less than 8 per cent of waste that enters the facility in Ford leaves without being sorted.
Kai Greenslade, commissioning and compliance officer, stressed that the majority of these items were things that should not be there in the first place.
Anything that the facility deems to be waste is sent to the mechanical biological treatment works in Horsham, which removes what it can for composting, with everything else ending up as refuse derived fuel.
Mr Tuppen said there had been a growing interest in recycling among the public thanks to increased environmental awareness and shows like the BBC’s Blue Planet – but added that there was a lot of misunderstanding too.
Ms Greenslade pointed out that the rising ‘demonisation’ of plastic actually overlooked the fact that there were many ‘success stories’ where manufacturers had designed products which were very easy to recycle, such as plastic milk bottles.
Mr Tuppen agreed that using ‘the right kind’ of plastic was not necessarily a bad thing.
While progress is being made in terms of recycling in West Sussex, analysis by the county council has shown that 22,000 tonnes of rubbish thrown away by residents every year was going in the wrong bin and could actually be recycled.
Mr Tuppen said: “The public are confused about recycling. What you can recycle is unfortunately different around the country.”
The county council has produced a series of videos which aim to demystify the process and also provides a comprehensive guide to what can and cannot be recycled in the county – which can be found here.
More savvy recycling on the behalf of residents will help the facility at Ford run smoother.
Ms Greenslade said: “The industry is very keen for us to push kerbside sorting but we are determined that we can produce the same quality by allowing people to put it all in the same bin.
“But we need everyone to play their part.
“If in doubt, just check.”