Zero Waste Week 2019 : Where does our waste go?

This years Zero Waste Week is focused on Reforming Climate Change. Rachelle of Zero Waste Week writes that ‘it is estimated that the world produces 2.12 billion tonnes of waste every year, a huge percentage of which ends up in landfill. Landfill is one of the top contributors to climate change, as piles of waste break down and release toxic gas and runoff. Significant amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas, and leachate (the liquid run-off) are produced by every landfill site in the world, all contributing to climate change…. A zero-waste lifestyle is one of the best ways to tackle climate change within your own home…small tweaks to everyday life can contribute to less waste and a smaller carbon footprint. This would have a serious impact and as a result, we would see less landfill, meaning less emission of greenhouse gases.’

Cornwall had two landfill sites, Cannon Bridge and United Downs but since March 2017 all of Cornwalls household waste has been diverted from landfill and instead goes to the Cornwall Energy Recovery Centre (CERC). We were lucky enough to visit CERC earlier in the year for a tour and find out more about what happens to our waste:

All of Cornwalls household waste is brought to the centre where it is mixed in a central bunker before being put in the furnace which is heated at over 1000 degrees centigrade. The burning waste creates heat, this heats water which creates steam which is put through a turbine connected to a generator which produces electricity which is added to the national grid. From the 240,000 tonnes of waste processed at CERC each year, 20MW of electricity is exported to the grid (equiv powering 21,000 homes per year, or approx 10% of Cornish households).

As well as generating energy the CERC also has some other bi-products from the process:

ASH: 65,000 tonnes of ash is produced each year from the burnt waste. This ash is sent across the road to Ballas Phoenix who sort and sieve the ash, removing any remaining metals found to be recycled and most of the remaining ash is used for construction projects, with around 2.5% being sent to landfill due to not being suitable for recycling.

AIR POLLUTION CONTROL RESIDUES: The Environment Agency monitors the air released from CERC. The hot air created during the burning process is cleaned and treated before being checked by an emissions scanner before finally being released into the atmosphere. The harmful chemical particles are collected into a separate silo before being transferred to a sealed unit for processing before going to a specialised landfill. This waste makes up around 2-3% of the total process.

STEAM: The dispensed steam is rapidly cooled back to water and put back into the boiling system to be reused in the process.

So is Cornwall winning at zero waste because we incinerate our waste? Although there is no doubt that CERC dramatically reduces the amount of waste ending up in landfill (around 6% of waste received by CERC will end up in landfill), and has a benefit of creating energy from waste, this energy conversion is low, 10% of Cornwalls homes are provided with energy from burning 100% of its waste. The plant itself also uses up energy, needing 3MW to run the plant as well as burning fossil fuels to get the furnace up to temperature, so we still need to be mindful of what we are sending to CERC, just as we would to landfill.

Its reported by Zero Waste Week that the top 3 items sent to landfill are food, clothing and plastic packaging, 3 things that shouldn’t be ending up as waste but instead being composted, recycled, upcycled or avoided. During our talk at CERC it was also mentioned by the team that when the waste is being mixed in the central bunker they identify lots of items being sent as waste that is actually recyclable in Cornwall including lots of glass, tin, cardboard and textiles, which is something we saw for ourselves on the tour.

So how can we avoid sending those top 3 waste items to CERC?

Food & Green Waste

Many of the Household Waste Recycling Centres in Cornwall accept green waste including hedge cuttings, grass cuttings, leaves, twigs and branches which is then shredded and composted before being used in local agriculture and landscaping. Unfortunately in Cornwall there are no food waste facilities at present so the only option is to start your own home compost or wormery. Why compost? Compost forms as a result of the natural breakdown of organic material into fine particles by bacteria, fungi, insects and animals which live in the soil. From this waste a nutrient rich compost is created which can enhance our soils health. Did you know, composting at home for just one year can save global warming gases equivalent to all the CO2 your kettle produces annually, or your washing machine produces in three months?


As there are limited kerbside recycling facilities for plastics we think refusing and avoiding are best here. Looking to reduce your consumption of plastic packaging through unpackaged options and refilling. We’re pretty lucky in Cornwall that there are now numerous shops offering various refill and unpackaged items. For recycling you can currently recycle plastic bottles, tubs and trays which are sorted into bales and sent by lorry to re-processors who will then sort further and squish the plastic into big blocks. The blocks are then cut up into small flakes or beads and then washed and dried before being taken to factories to be melted and made into new plastic products such as clothing, furniture, drainpipes or new bottles. There are also other non-council recycling facilities around Cornwall for recycling plastics such as various Terracycle schemes.


Did you know that every week 11 million items of clothing end up in landfill? Clean dry clothing, shoes, towels and sheets (no duvets or pillows) can be put out with your kerbside recycling, put them in a bag to keep them dry and put the bag on top of your recycling box to be collected where they will be sorted and recycled. Other options are to swish, donate to charity or look to upcycle into something new.

The more products we can refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle and rot, the more we can reduce the amount of precious resources being used and reduce carbon emissions and therefore reduce the impact of climate change. We don’t get a free pass because of the Cornwall Energy Recovery System!

You can find more on Cornwalls recycling facilities here:

Recycling in Cornwall

Cornwall Council

More info on CERC and if you would like to visit

Terracycle programmes

Recycling with Incredible Bulk

Zero Waste Cornwall Guide

Environmental impacts of incineration