IN a vast warehouse in the Carmarthenshire countryside, workers are sorting through fast-moving chutes of waste.
This is where household rubbish arrives from all over the county, and further afield, to be processed.
Every year around 125,000 tonnes of paper, tins, plastic, food waste, black bag waste — plus mattresses, bulky items and other stuff — are brought to the Nantycaws landfill and recycling site, a few miles east of Carmarthen.
In the warehouse — or materials recycling facility — a digger shovels blue bags full of household recycling into a bag-splitting machine.
Workers pick out the split bags, hold them up to suction tubes and they disappear — the bags, that is.
The waste is then deposited into a vast churning drum, which separates bulkier products like cans and bottles from flatter items.
It’s noisy work, everyone wears ear plugs, and the process continues.
There is a machine which uses air jets, and one which uses magnets.
Operations director Sean Gallagher tosses out names like ballistic separator, optical separator and eddy current separator.
It’s all about making sure the final product from each different waste stream is in good nick.
“The quality has to be top notch,” said Mr Gallagher, of Cwm Environmental, which is effectively an arm’s length Carmarthenshire Council company.
In a building next door are bales of separated products, like cans, which are sold to re-processors.
The market for recyclable products is always fluctuating.
“When China closed the door on recycling last year (from the UK) it caused a massive knock-on effect,” said Mr Gallagher.
“There was an excess of materials in the market, so prices crashed.”
Dan John, the council’s environmental services manager, said there was a perception among some that councils made a tidy profit by selling stuff we all leave on the kerbside for collection.
He said the money in fact subsidised the many other aspects of waste management.
“It is a costly service,” he said.
Throughout our tour of the site there is a clear message — cutting down our black bag waste, currently 29,000 tonnes a year in Carmarthenshire, is critical.
The Welsh Government sets ever stricter recycling targets (70% by 2014/25), dealing with black bag waste is expensive, and environmentally it makes sense to stick as little rubbish in the ground as possible.
Mr John said a study in Carmarthenshire in 2017 revealed that almost half the waste in black bags was recyclable.
Simply getting rid of the food waste in those bags and putting it in food caddies, he said, would save £400,000 a year, and boost the current recycling rate of around 60%.
“We do have quite strong waste education message that we put out consistently, not just for the environmental benefit but for the taxpayer as well,” said Mr John.
Nantycaws was Carmarthenshire’s last operational landfill site until December 2016.
Since then all black bag waste has been sent to energy from waste plants in the UK and Europe, which burn waste and generate power in the process.
Black bags from the county’s 89,000 households are currently sent to such a plant in Cardiff.
The landfill site at Nantycaws has a temporary cap, and gas which naturally occurs from the breakdown of matter is piped to two units and burned to generate electricity. The 100-acre site also derives power from a wind turbine.
Welsh ministers have published a waste hierarchy, which ranks prevention top of the tree and landfill at the bottom. One up from landfill is energy from waste.
Ministers have further dis-incentivised councils going down the burying in a hole route with targets of no more than 10% of waste to landfill by 2019/20, and no more than 5% by 2024/25.
There has been much debate in the UK about waste being sent far away for disposal or processing.
The Welsh Government said it was looking into ways of developing plastic reprocessing facilities in Wales.
Mr Gallagher backed such an approach, but said: “They would need to be cost-efficient as well as environmentally-friendly.”
The 6,500 tonnes of food waste brought to Nantycaws every year naturally breaks down in a special vessel before being moved into open-air rows. Twelve weeks after arriving, it is bagged up and sold as Merlin’s Magic Compost.
Cwm Environmental runs Carmarthenshire’s three other household waste recycling facilities in Trostre, Ammanford and Whitland.
It employs just under 70 staff, plus a couple of dozen or so agency workers, and also handles commercial waste.
“It is a very competitive market,” said Mr Gallagher.
Environmental regulator Natural Resources Wales carries out checks at the sites to ensure permit conditions are being adhered to. All waste handled has to be traceable.
Nantycaws also receives recyclable waste from Ceredigion and Pembrokeshire, and garden waste from Swansea and Pembrokeshire.
Back in the office and reception building at Nantycaws, a smell of bacon is wafting around.
Inside Mr Gallagher’s office are rows and rows of files marked landfill site operations records and health and safety training records.
The far wall is entirely taken up by a photo of a sunlit wood.
The waste business may not be glamorous, but 41-year-old Mr Gallagher finds his job very rewarding.
“It’s enjoyable, and it’s a challenge,” he said.