Towards a greener waste cycle

Green transition 12 December 2016 Bettina Kamuk Björn Appelqvist

The increasing pressure on resources makes it clear that waste must be turned into a resource in a circular economy - an economy that only functions optimally if it includes recycling as well as energy recovery.

10 min

The figures speak for themselves. The UN projects global population growth of more than 2.5 billion by 2050, and other forecasts expect 3 billion more people to aspire to the standard of living enjoyed in Western economies. If these projections prove true, by 2050 we will have to extract triple the amount of resources annually extracted in 2000 – the consequence being extra pressure on land, water and energy usage.

The OECD also estimates that about one fifth of global material extraction becomes waste, and the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA) estimates that 70% of global waste is still disposed of in landfills.

The OECD expects municipal solid waste to rise by 0.69% for every 1% increase in national income. Economic development produces more waste and taps into virgin materials – the Earth’s stock of natural resources.

In 2016 Earth Overshoot Day (EOD) fell as early as August 8. The Global Footprint Network has designated the annual EOD as the day that human resource consumption exceeds the environment’s capacity to renew those resources in the same year. This drives home why experts are calling for a paradigm shift in how we consider resources and waste. Waste can no longer be waste – we have no choice but to make it a resource.

Ambitious EU GOALS

“This is why the European Commission has adopted the ambitious recycling objectives in the Circular Economy Package proposed in December 2015,” explains Julio Garcia Burgués, Head of the Waste Management & Recycling Unit at the Directorate General Environment.

Europe currently loses around 600 million tonnes of reusable or recyclable material contained in waste each year. Although Europe is making efforts in this area, in 2014 the EU recycled, on average, only 44% of its municipal waste, landfilled 28% and incinerated 27%.

Some countries, however, already generate a lot of energy from their waste – Austria, the Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden and Denmark, for example. Waste generates more than 30% of the total district heating in the Greater Copenhagen Area.

The Circular Economy proposal is primarily aimed to promote global competitiveness, create new jobs and support sustainable economic growth. It contains several ambitious goals, including that landfill should constitute no more than 10% of municipal waste and that 65% material of municipal waste should be recycled, both by 2030. In 2015, only 34% of household waste from the City of Copenhagen was recycled.

The ambitious goals raised concerns from some industry professionals that the EU wants waste-to-energy (WtE) to play a diminishing role in the future. But contrary to some beliefs, recycling and waste incineration are complementary when it comes to sustainable waste management and the circular economy. Julio Garcia Burgués explains that the circular economy actually depends on waste-to-energy.

“The future holds a place for waste-to-energy solutions,” he says.

Linear economy on the decline

Bettina Kamuk, Ramboll’s Head of Department for Waste-to-Energy, and Björn Appelqvist, Head of Department for Site Solutions & Waste Management, look to the circular economy as a common guideline.

They both took part in a Task Force on Circular Economy at ISWA, which has produced six reports on the circular economy. All conclude that the linear economy is on the decline, and that WtE supports the circular economy.

“There is a limit to recycling. For example, recycled paper and textile fibres wear out over time. Therefore, efficient handling of residual waste, such as waste-to-energy, is an essential part of the mix,” says Björn Appelqvist.

Bettina Kamuk adds: “The more we recover, the less we can burn in our waste-to-energy plants. However, tonnes and tonnes of material are being unnecessarily dumped in landfills today. What cannot be recycled, we can use in the plants instead.”

Bettina Kamuk and Björn Appelqvist explain that incineration can also be a means of recovering resources. For example, the small electronic devices inside plastic toys can be difficult to recover. However, when the toys are incinerated, the plastic curls, thus enabling valuable metals to be recovered from the ashes.

Most efficient techniques

Julio Garcia Burgués of the European Commission points out that just over 1% of all electricity consumption and 10% of the total heat delivered through district heating networks in the EU come from waste. This contribution is expected to increase as more combustible waste is diverted from landfills, and the technology is optimised. By end-2016 the Commission will adopt a communication on waste-to-energy as part of the renewable energy package.

“This will highlight the most proven and efficient techniques available to extract energy and materials from waste, clarify the position of energy recovery in the waste hierarchy and map out the waste-to-energy capacities in the EU and the waste flows for energy recovery amongst member states. All in all, it will examine how waste-to-energy processes can be optimised without compromising the achievement of higher reuse and recycling rates, and how the energy potential embedded in waste can best be exploited,” explains the Commission’s Head of the Waste Management & Recycling Unit.

Facts: what is a circular economy?

Ideally, in a circular economy no waste or pollution is produced, and there are two types of material flows: biological nutrients, designed to re-enter the biosphere safely, and technical nutrients, which are designed to circulate in the production system without entering the biosphere, as well as being restorative and regenerative.

Only a few idealists believe that a fully circular economy is possible, but almost all experts agree that the mounting pressure on the Earth’s resources means we must take big steps away from the traditional linear economy and its “take, make, dispose” production model.

Two factors are driving the emergence of the circular economy in its present form: long-term price increases for raw materials and environmental legislation/green taxation.

Source: ISWA

Facts: recycling and recovery

Recycling of waste is defined as any recovery operation by which waste materials are reprocessed into products, materials or substances whether for the original or other purposes. It includes the reprocessing of organic material but not energy recovery/incineration.

The primary form of energy recovery is waste-to-energy – the process of generating energy in the form of electricity and/or heat from the primary treatment of waste.


Written by Michael Rothenborg