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The first priority in waste management is waste minimisation. How successful is the conversion of the throw-away society to a wasteless economy? Is waste as a resource being fully exploited?

Recycling is the recovery of individual substances from discarded products, for reuse in the manufacture of similar or different products. A distinction is usually made between reutilising a product (e.g. multi-use milk bottles) for the same purpose, and recovering individual materials.

A sustainable policy for the protection of natural resources gives a high priority to the creation of closed material life cycles. A modern waste management policy is an important part of this. It ensures that all waste is reused or at least used to maximum benefit.

Recycling has a number of advantages over using fresh raw materials. Costs savings can be obtained in many cases, and there are environmental benefits from reduced amounts of waste reaching free nature, and the reduction of the quantities of waste that need to be landfilled.

Environmental Science
Reusable bottles save material but consume energy

The material collected from domestic and commercial waste, such as glass, metal and paper, can be reused for the same purpose (e.g. newspapers), or the material can be cleaned, purified, reprocessed, and used for an alternative purpose (e.g. PVC from bottles can be used to make polyester jumpers).

In the past, policies have relied on free-market instruments. This leads to inefficiencies in recovery of usable materials from waste, and have failed to develop long-term strategies which take into account changing market conditions. Policies based primarily on the cost of recycling versus the current price of virgin material have obstructed many countries from developing the know-how and infrastructure necessary to adapt to rapidly changing demands.

Die thermische Abfallbehandlungsanlage kann 260 Tausend Tonnen Abfall verbrennen um 60 MW Wärme in das Fernwärmenetz ein
Spittelau Waste Incineration Plant, Vienna, 1987 facade by Friedensreich Hundertwasser

Germany, Austria and Switzerland lead the way in utilising waste resources efficiently. They provide models for the integration of waste management policies with other targets, such as greenhouse gas emission reductions, and energy security.

A policy to combat climate change by reducing fossil fuel use can be partially met by utilising the energy content of waste. Yet many countries have very low rates of energy recovery. In part this is due to lack of infrastructure (segregated collection facilities and waste-to-energy incinerator plant), and in part this is due to the shortsightedness of policy-makers.

The unpredictability of supply and price of fossil fuel can be hedged by the option to extract energy from waste. Countries like the USA, which rely on economic criteria almost exclusively, have created an enormous liability in lack of development, not only of infrastructure, but critically of public participation. The habit of throwing all waste together for landfilling will take many years of public awareness campaigns to bring on track towards a more sustainable economy.

Waste Incineration Plant waste transport claw. A typical large incinerator can process around 600 tonnes a day of mixed waste.

The failure of free-market forces to instil sound practices in efficient resource exploitation can be corrected most directly by legislation. The support for legislation to correct single-parameter economic priorities is fundamentally public sensitivity to the broader issues. Without grassroot support, the issues become subject to the pingpong of populist political debates, and deflate the global nature of the issues to a local agenda, usually erroneous arguments based on fear of unemployment and other local economic interests.

When the issues are handled scientifically and on a national or global level, they may extend the waste resource debate to climate change policies, supply security, and responsible and timely development of alternatives. Good waste management leads to growth in local industries, and increases in employment. The instruments available to policy-makers include limited-term subsidies for alternative technologies, fees for disposal of waste, non-fossil obligations (quotas for renewables, etc.), fuel taxes, and bans on certain options for waste management. An example of the latter is the prohibition in Germany on landfilling biodegradable substances.

Müllverbrennungsanlage Vorschubrost
The moving grate enables the movement of up to 35 tonnes of waste per hour through the combustion chamber, optimising complete combustion.

The 2013 report released by the EEA, Managing municipal solid waste, 2013 — a review of achievements in 32 European countries, reveals that where these policies have been implemented, they have a clear positive impact on waste management performance, and have a high level of acceptance by the populace as a whole.

All the targets of GHG emission reduction, protection of the environment, public health safety, and a rigorous net-benefit economic environment, of which the waste management industry is an active contributor, can be demonstrated to have been achieved, or exceeded, by these policies in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Other European countries have been much slower in enacting these policies, and are now paying the economic price, and accumulating liabilities as the world moves towards less-favourable future market conditions.

Recycling does not come for free

Another good reason to have a progressive waste management policy is to prevent future shortages of valuable materials. By using the current market price for virgin material as the benchmark for whether these materials should be recovered from waste, results too often in this resource being lost to landfill.

Metals which are not recovered from electronic scrap, for example, not only are lost as a resource, but risk entering the ecosystem and creating a long-term environmental hazard, with related externalised and future costs. Germany is currently making efforts to recover reusable metals from electronic scrap, even though the current market price may persuade it is cheaper for manufacturers to import fresh material.

In 2010, the 27 EU member states recycled 63 million tonnes of their municipal waste, which included glass, paper, metal, textiles, and plastic. 48 million tonnes of packaging waste was also recycled, although this figure includes industrial and commercial packaging waste.

Recycling rates in Europe

Country % MSW recycled, inc. bio-waste a % MSW recycled, excl. bio-waste b % MSW landfilled
2001 2013 2001 2013 2001 2013
Germany 48 62 34 45 25 2
France 16 35 13 18 43 32
Italy 18 36 12 23 75 48
Austria 58 63 24 30 42 8
UK 12 39 8 25 81 49
Switzerland 47 51 33 34 5 <1

a The percentage of MSW recycled per MSW generated, includes material recycling and composting and digestion of bio-waste

b The material recycling rate calculated as the percentage of materials recycled per municipal waste generated

In 2010, the 27 EU member states recycled 63 million tonnes of their municipal waste, which included glass, paper, metal, textiles, and plastic. 48 million tonnes of packaging waste was also recycled, although this figure includes industrial and commercial packaging waste.

In this table the numbers stand for kg/capita:

Country Waste generated Material recycling Landfill/ disposal Incineration Composting/ digestion
2001 2013 2001 2013 2001 2013 2001 2013 2001 2013
EU 521 481 88 131 278 146 82 123 50 71
Germany 632 617 238 290 161 1 140 218 92 108
France 526 530 72 110 214 150 174 180 65 89
Italy 516 491 62 122 349 181 44 99 30 72
Austria 576 578 140 142 192 23 65 202 231 192
UK 691 482 54 133 473 165 43 102 19 77
Switzerland 660 702 218 236 28 0 325 344 89 122

Data source: ec.europa.eu/eurostat

Plastic recycling in the EU

Plastic is being recycled at ever-increasing rates in most countries in the EU.

Recycling Rates in Europe

The percentage of packaging recycled:

EU54.6% (2005)64.5% (2012)
Italy53.3%66.6% (2012)

Recovery rates for packaging wastes. These figures include incineration at waste incineration plants with energy recovery:

EU66.8% (2005)78.5% (2012)
Italy56.4%76.3% (2012)

UK plastic recycling

In 2001, the UK Environment Agency reported that 80% of post-use plastic waste was sent to landfill, 8% was incinerated and 7% recycled. These figures do not include reprocessing of residual polymers after industrial plastic production, of which 95% is used in further production.

The UK has an incomplete system of plastic waste collection, with 4,000 plastic bottle collection banks collecting 24 ktonnes of plastic bottles, which is 5.5% of the total in circulation.

Plastic is cheap to produce, light and easily stored. It makes airtight, hygienic and tough containers, and strong, lightweight carriers, so is ideal for packaging, storage and transport. Plastic production uses 8% of the world oil production, which is 7 million barrels a day. Half of this oil is for feedstock in the production of plastic, and half is consumed in the production process itself. Reducing the amount of plastic produced will reduce energy consumption and emissions of carbon-dioxide (CO2), nitrogen-oxide (NO) and sulphur-dioxide (SO2) during manufacture, and reduce non-biodegradable landfill waste.

There are three basic ways to ensure the most is obtained out of plastic:


Recycling does not come for free

The first challenge in recycling plastics is the difficulty of post-use separated collection from the consumer. Ferrous and aluminium cans can be collected together, and easily separated by magnets. However, the public are not sensitive to all the groups of plastics, and low collection rates of recyclable plastic are still the norm. Plastic waste is still widely sorted by hand into polymer category and colour, in the collection or reprocessing facilities. Some technologies are being developed to aid sorting. These include X-ray fluoresence, infrared and near-infrared spectroscopy, electrostatics and flotation.

The second hurdle relates to the practicality of cleaning, removal of contaminants (such as paper labels and glue residues), colour mixes, and the economicability of options for the reclaimed material. Mechanical recycling involves melting, shredding or granulation. The sorted plastic is melted down, as it is or after shredding into flakes, and regranulated.

Feedstock recycling involves a process of breaking the polymer into its constituent monomers, which are then used in applications in refineries, petrochemical and chemical industries. The technologies being developed for this purpose include pyrolysis, hydrogenation, gasification, and thermal cracking. The advantage of feedstock over mechanical recycling is greater impurity tolerance. Disadvantages are that it is capital intensive, and scale, whereby very large quantities (in excess of 50 kt p.a.) are required to make the operation economic. One tonne of plastics is equivalent to 20,000 two litre drinks bottles or 120,000 carrier bags.

Plastic can be recycled for use in products as diverse as polyethylene bin liners and carrier bags, piping made of PVC, building elements such as flooring, window frames, and insulating board, garden furniture, clothing (e.g. fleeces), and office accessories.

Energy Reclamation from plastic waste

Hazardous waste
Waste-to-Energy waste incinerator, Amsterdam

The first principle is the avoidance of waste generation in the first place. The second is where possible the reuse or recycling of substances, which are separated from the regular waste stream. For the remaining amount, the better option is exploitation of the energy content, and only then should any material that cannot be reused, recycled or which has no energy value, should be carefully landfilled under controlled conditions.

Plastic can be incinerated in waste-to-energy plants, and the energy used to generate electricity. The flue gases need to be scrubbed, as they contain dioxins and other pollutants.

Plastics waste recycling is covered by the DIN ISO 15270:2008 for plastics waste and ISO 14001:2004 for environmental management control of recycling practice.