Circular thinking turns waste into value

Paul Boughton

The European Commission recently announced its new Circular Economy Package which was certainly more ambitious than the last albeit slightly watered down from what we were expecting. Adrian Haworth reports

While the original expectation for the 2015 policy was to ban all landfill by 2030, the final policy package for 2015 outlines a common target for recycling of 75% of all packaging waste and a binding landfill target of a maximum of 10% of all waste by 2030.

The proposed actions will contribute to ‘closing the loop’ of product lifecycles through greater recycling and re-use, which will bring benefits for both the environment and the economy. The revised legislative proposals on waste set out clear targets for reduction of waste and establishes a long-term path for waste management and recycling.

Indeed, the revised package on waste is aimed at stimulating Europe's transition towards a circular economy which will help to boost Europe's global competitiveness, foster sustainable economic growth and ultimately generate new jobs. So rather than the traditional linear economy approach (make, use, dispose) which has supported our economic development over the past 150 to 200 years, the circular economy aims to keep resources in use for as long as possible. This means that we extract the maximum value from them whilst in use, then recover and regenerate products and materials at the end of each service life.

As a nation we currently export a vast quantity of waste overseas for use in waste-to energy plants whilst we import gas and oil (fuel). Moving forward what we want is to extract more product from this waste to drive a more circular economy and also to use as much residual waste as we can in the UK and I believe this new package is certainly taking us in the right direction.

The use of plastic materials has increased significantly in recent years and plastic waste has grown proportionately. The vast majority of plastic around the world is still disposed of in landfill. Mechanical recycling of plastic to reduce landfill disposal is problematic due to the wide variation in properties and chemical composition among the different types of plastics.

Further, the handling and transportation of waste plastic has become very expensive. So right now, when waste operators and recycling plants get material they can't recycle it becomes a liability. It might surprise you to know that in the UK only 24% of the 3.1 million tonnes of plastic that enters the waste stream is recycled.

Most is discarded in landfills or incinerated, both of which are expensive and polluting. That said, although the UK is struggling to meet its current 2020 recycling target, it is still among the 10 best-performing countries in Europe according to the most recent data from Eurostat. Many newer member states have similar or lower rates including Poland at 24.2%, Slovakia at 10.8% and Romania at just 2.6%. Overall however there is still plenty of room for improvement.

The new EU Action Plan for the Circular Economy establishes a concrete programme with measures that cover the whole cycle - from production and consumption to waste management and the market for secondary raw materials. It also sets out a timeline that stipulates when actions need to completed, which is a positive step in the right direction.

Moving forward this will drive companies to start to think about designing products for reuse in the first place. The end goal will be to reuse, remake and recycle. The current recycling scheme costs energy and still creates waste for incineration or landfill.

The future lies in having collectors, operators, recyclers and producers collaborating on a cost effective reverse logistics system that will yield more value out of the used products and reduce or eliminate waste for incineration or landfill. This is what we do at Recycling Technologies. We take unwanted or unusable residual mixed plastic waste and turn this into a valuable product. We have developed a pilot machine (the RT700), which is used to convert this residual plastic waste into a valuable low sulphur hydrocarbon product branded PlaxxT. Plaxx has a range of applications. It can be used as a compound in various chemical formulations, feedstock for polymer production and as a fuel.

Reducing waste and improving resource efficiency is crucial to protecting our environment and growing our economy.  So, whilst we can't provide all the answers to dealing with our substantial waste mountain, by applying circular thinking we have created a cleaner, greener and extremely competitively priced solution to the problem of dealing with residual plastic waste.

Adrian Haworth is with Recycling Technologies.