Zero Waste Europe: Mixed waste sorting vital to municipal recycling and climate change targets
16 Feb 2023 --- Zero Waste Europe (ZWE) and Reloop have published a new study by Eunomia Research and Consulting today which shows that applying sorting systems to mixed waste (MWS) before thermal treatment and landfilling can contribute to the EU’s climate objectives and boost plastic and municipal waste recycling targets.
“MWS is using technology to extract valuable materials from the mixed (residual) waste stream prior to incineration or landfilling. These include materials not currently targeted by separate collection, such as non-packaging plastics which are not covered by EPR schemes, but also materials which should be collected separately but may erroneously be delivered with residual waste,” Janek Vähk, ZWE climate, energy and air pollution programme coordinator, tells PackagingInsights.
The study, which examined the role MWS could play in three EU countries with high recycling performance – Germany, Belgium and Sweden – concluded that, in addition to separate collection and improved recyclability of plastic packaging, a full roll-out of effective MWS is necessary to ensure that recycling targets are consistently met and progress toward the EU’s wider carbon emissions reduction goals.
Therefore, the organizations assert that the most important MWS contribution is the greenhouse gas emissions reduction associated with waste, as it is an effective method for ensuring that energy-intensive materials are not lost to landfill and energy recovery, but can be recycled and replace the need for virgin materials.
report studied whether and to what extent EU recycling targets can be met through improved recyclability of packaging and increased separate collections of municipal waste – and, if not, what measures could be taken to achieve them.The Mixed Waste Sorting to meet the EU’s Circular Economy Objectives
“MWS uses a technology and system design to extract the valuable material from the white bag prior to incineration or landfilling. The study shows that up to 23.2 million [metric] tons of CO2 can be avoided if MWS would be implemented across Europe. This represents 215 of 2020 EU waste sector emissions,” adds Vähk.
Vähk highlights that MWS is already being employed in several countries and regions – mainly in countries where incinerators are obliged to pay CO2 tax. However, CO2 taxes are in place only in a few countries, such as Denmark, Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands.
“Therefore, we suggest mandating it [CO2 taxes] either via the revision of the Industrial Emissions Directive or the Waste Framework Directive. The most economical way is to replace the refuse-derived fuel production units in Mechanical Biological Treatment (MBT) plants with equipment to sort mixed waste and recover the materials which are worth recovering. There are over 500 MBT plants in Europe, so the equipment in these could be adapted,” he says.
“The good news is that there is a growing political will to mandate MWS. This is being considered in the ongoing revisions of the Renewable Energy Directive (to remove fossil-based materials) and the Industrial Emissions Directive (to require operators to demonstrate that the waste input is sorted).”
Curbing CO2 emissions
The findings suggest that MWS could save between 10.2 and 23.2 metric tons of CO2 emissions annually, depending on the success of separate collection improvements. This would mean savings of up to 21% on the total 2020 EU waste sector emissions.
The number increases to saving 28 metric tons of CO2 per annum, equivalent to 25% of EU waste sector emissions, if a more ambitious MWS with greater sorting efficiencies is rolled out.
The report further finds that the introduction of mandatory MWS would help to ensure that plastic and paper packaging recycling targets for 2030 will be consistently met and contribute between 2.9% and 8.2% to the municipal waste recycling targets, depending on the level of
ambition in MWS and the success of separate collection improvements.
In the three countries examined, the addition of MWS prior to thermal treatment and landfilling is projected to raise recycling rates in 2030 from 50-62% in Germany, 53-65% in Belgium and 44-58% in Sweden.
“Mixed waste sorting would reduce the need for new incinerators below zero. A recent report by Reloop found that if the 65% recycling target for municipal waste is to be met and if existing incineration facilities remain operational, the effect of mixed waste sorting might be to reduce the need for additional incineration capacity below zero,” concludes Vähk.
By Natalie Schwertheim
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