According to the 2021 report by Plastics Europe, over 29 million tonnes of plastic post-consumer waste were collected in the EU27+3 in 2020. Of this more than one third (34.6%) was sent to recycling facilities whilst over 23% was sent to landfill and more than 40% was sent to energy recovery operations.
We may be heading in the right direction in terms of reducing our reliance on landfilling, but there is still close to 12 million tonnes of plastics going to waste to energy (WTE) that undoubtedly contains a high percentage of potentially valuable recyclable materials as well as adding 35 million tonnes of fossil fuel emissions.
Ensuring plastics continue to deliver the benefits they offer society must be balanced by an even greater emphasis on minimising their environmental footprint. The fact that landfilling is on the decline is certainly a step in the right direction, however, the 12 million tonnes of waste still going to WTE clearly indicates we are wasting precious resources.
Certainly WTE plays an important role in handling our most awkward waste, but this high-energy solution with a big carbon footprint should be viewed as the very last step, after we have stripped out the vast amounts of precious resources that could be retrieved from commingled waste.
As we develop and refine the diverse and flexible mix of solutions required to solve our climate crisis, we need to acknowledge the urgent need to overhaul the way the recycling industry currently views and manages. If we flip the recycling model on its head, we could, in fact, consider turning the entire sector into a carbon-saving venture. For this to happen, the recycling sector needs to double in size to accelerate the required paradigm shift in our management of waste.
Taking this one step further, we should be talking about ‘resources’ rather than ‘waste’ and nothing short of a total rehaul of our waste disposal infrastructure will have the required crucial impact.
The pressure mounting on energy companies to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels is creating a growing need for raw materials, which brings us to an obvious conclusion, energy companies are going to have to unscramble the waste feed and this means focusing on dirty MRFs.
Despite industry’s best efforts to educate consumers and attempts to make recycling easy and convenient, consumers still place a significant amount of potentially valuable recyclable material into the rubbish. As a consequence, waste streams contain large quantities of polyolefins and other plastics that could be turned back into raw materials.
Rather than allowing WTE to gain momentum, we should be stripping all fossil-derived materials out of the waste stream, relying only on WTE as a last resort once the waste stream has been thoroughly filtered.
Dirty MRFs can recover anything from five percent to 45 percent of the incoming material as recyclables, however, now that we have the technology to more efficiently identify and sort plastics into different fractions, we have the potential to increase this percentage.
Whilst the latest regulations to come out of the European Commission have shifted the regulatory space for those dealing with food-grade plastic, plastics extracted from dirty MRFs can still play a vital role in bridging the raw materials gap we are facing and unlock the potential built into plastic materials.
The Packaging sector has never had to consider circularity before but now it does. There needs to be end-of-life strategies in place for plastics put onto the market.
Likewise, we all need to ensure that nothing produced slips out of the loop. In the plastics sector alone it has been estimated that if all plastic were recycled globally this could result in mean annual savings of 30 to 150 million tonnes of CO2, equivalent to shutting between 8 and 40 coal-fired power plants globally (report by BPF 2021).
All the more reason not to ignore the hidden goldmine buried in dirty MRFs - we can’t afford to waste ‘waste’ when we have the potential to turn the plastics sector into a carbon-saving venture.
Professor Edward Kosior is the founder of Nextek and NEXTLOOPP. Nextek is a global sustainability and technology consultancy that offers strategic advice to regional and multi-national organisations and recycling companies. Launched in 2004, Nextek researches and develops innovative strategies and processes within the recycling ecosystem – from designing recycling plants to developing ground-breaking projects for governments and major organisations. Nextek launched NEXTLOOPP, a multi- participant project, to close the loop on food-grade rPP. This project incorporates unique technological breakthroughs that include innovative sorting and cutting-edge decontamination technology.