Where does Wales' waste go? Track the rubbish you throw away as it becomes the paper you write on

Only Germany and Taiwan have a better success rate of reusing rubbish than Wales.

There's a quiet revolution on our curbsides - increasingly the things you throw away aren't disappearing for good. 

When it comes to recycling, Wales can genuinely claim to be a world leader. Only Germany and Taiwan have a better success rate of reusing rubbish.

But even if we're good at sorting it out, many of us aren't quite sure what happens to all that waste.

"I haven't got a clue", smiles Michelle, from Grangetown in Cardiff.

Michelle's daughter Martha, 8, says she thinks it goes into landfill. But adds that recycling is a good idea because "the animals that might have lived in the landfill can maybe get their green area back."

Michelle also thinks it's a good thing: "We can't keep using resources the way we are at the moment."

But what really happens to all that stuff we throw away? Well it depends on what it is.

Abercynon anaerobic digestor will generate heat and power.

Food waste goes into an "anaerobic digester" (sort of like a giant artificial stomach) where bacteria turns it into energy which can be used to power homes. 

There are five of these across the country.

The stuff that really can't be recycled (what goes in your black bags) gets incinerated in an "energy recovery facility." 

The rest - plastic, glass, paper, textiles - is sold to "reprocessors" - private companies who break down the rubbish, and sell it on to manufacturers to make new products. 

And then the cycle begins again - the "circular economy" in action.

Some waste travels across the World, to China, Malaysia and Indonesia. Credit: Google Earth / ITV Wales

Most of this recycling is done close to home.

Over 800,000 tonnes of Welsh rubbish is recycled in Wales and England, according to the website My Recycling Wales.

But some goes abroad. In fact, the things you throw away could end up across Europe, from Finland to Greece.

Or even further afield. In 2021/22, a tonne of Welsh plastic was sent to China for recycling.

We filmed what happened to some of this material.

The journey starts one Wednesday morning on a street in Grangetown, Cardiff, where a bin lorry turned up to collect the rubbish.

Grangetown is one of the city's wards trialling a new system - soon to be rolled out across Cardiff - where residents are asked to separate their recycling into three new containers, for plastic and metal, paper and cardboard, and glass. 

We film as the team empty each container onto the truck. There are different compartments for different materials.

The next stop is the "MRF" (Materials Reclamation Facility) in the east of the city. Here the rubbish is tipped out in a warehouse, sorted through to remove contaminants, and "baled" to be sold on for reprocessing. 

The waste is sorted in a factuality in Grangetown.

Fewer contaminants mean better quality recycling, which in turn sees the council fetch a better price for its materials.

"Segregating [rubbish] at source is better quality recycling", says Julie James, the Climate Change minister. 

"The local authorities sell that on to the reprocessors and they get a better price for it." 

"So the more we can do it in the home, the better the price, the lower your council tax, the better your services." 

A few weeks later, I travel to the giant Smurfit Kappa paper mill in Kent to see the next stage of the process.

Here, they recycle 800 tonnes of paper and cardboard each day. 

I watch as the bales of compacted rubbish - each weighing a tonne - are emptied into a giant "pulper", where they're mixed with water and broken down into paper fibres. 

Cardboard and paper waste is pulped.

The resulting fibres are then dried and heated to form new paper, before being rolled onto giant reels, the heaviest weighing 35 tonnes. 

The reels are stored in a massive warehouse before being sold on and used for new products like cardboard boxes. 

"We sell the reels onto our corrugators in the UK and Ireland", explains Lucy Russell, head of Recycling at the company.

And it seems nothing goes to waste.

"When paper and cardboard has been recycled over ten times, the fibre lengths reduce. And anything that we can't recycling is made into a product that goes into compost or landspread." (The spreading of waste across land in order to reintroduce it into the environment).

From next year, the Welsh Government has set a target of 70% for local authorities.

There are different processes to recycle other types of rubbish, from glass to plastic. The overall aim to reduce carbon emissions and landfill and, as Michelle said at the outset, "to use resources properly."

"We're moving away from the old-fashioned linear economy where we used to collect, use and dispose of", says Graham Harris, Cardiff Council's Head of Recycling.

"It's now 'collect, use, and put back into the loop to use again'."

From next year, the Welsh Government has set an even more ambitious recycling target of 70% for local authorities (up from the current 65%). 

It's hoped the increasing move to segregating rubbish at home will help achieve this aim. And according to the minister, it's good for the economy too.

"We've genuinely had companies from all over the world making enquiries about coming here so that they can use our high-quality recycling, to bring much-needed jobs and economic development to Wales." 

"Because they know we have such high-quality source-segregated recycling." 

Not everyone's convinced. A survey carried out for ITV Cymru Wales found that:

But the momentum behind reusing our rubbish seems unstoppable. 

And in a world where the warming climate is never far from the headlines, it's a cause that many seem happy to get behind.

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