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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

A distinction is usually made between reutilising a product (e.g. multi-use milk bottles) for the same purpose, and reutilising the individual materials from discarded products. 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.

EU Policies

    The European waste hierarchy refers to the five steps included in the article 4 of the Waste Framework Directive:
  1. Prevention: preventing and reducing waste generation.
  2. Reuse and preparation for reuse: giving the products a second life before they become waste.
  3. Recycle: any recovery operation by which waste materials are reprocessed into products, materials or substances whether for the original or other purposes. It includes composting and it does not include incineration.
  4. Recovery: some waste incineration based on a political non-scientific formula[citation needed] that upgrades the less inefficient incinerators.
  5. Disposal: processes to dispose of waste be it landfilling, incineration, pyrolysis, gasification and other finalist solutions. Landfill is restricted in some EU-countries through Landfill Directives and there is a debate about Incineration E.g. original plastic which contains a lot of energy is just recovered in energy and not recycled. According to the Waste Framework Directive the European Waste Hierarchy is legally binding except in cases that may require specific waste streams to depart from the hierarchy. This should be justified on the basis of life-cycle thinking.

European Directives

  • European Commission's Roadmap on a resource efficient Europe (EC, 2011)
  • EU Waste Framework Directive (EU, 2008) (PDF 150k)
  • Landfill Directive (EU, 1999)

Few countries of the EU reduced their total municipal waste output in the period 2001 - 2010, and most countries still landfill more than 50% of their municipal waste. However, there are clear signs of a shift away from landfilling to other waste management methods.

Electronic waste
EMAS is for every stage of a product's life

The proportion of recycling of municipal waste has increased by about 10% (17% to 27%) on average across the EU between 2001-2010. Material recycling has proceeded better than bio-waste reclamation (composting or bacterial digestion for bio-fuels).

The more efficient use of waste as an energy source, and better waste management, can lead to a reduction in GHG (greenhouse gases) emissions. Landfills can produce methane gas from bio-waste, which is not as easily collected and used as from a dedicated bio-fuel plant. The reuse of used materials reduces the amount of virgin materials required, and therefore reduces GHG emissions from primary production.

The EU Report Managing municipal solid waste — a review of achievements in 32 European countries (EEA Report No 2/2013) demonstrates a strong correlation between municipal recycling rates and application of measures such as landfill bans on biodegradable waste, mandatory separate collection of municipal waste fractions, and recycling-encouraging economic instruments such as landfill and incineration taxes, and waste collection fees.

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:

Germany: MSW trends

Germany has among the highest rates of recycling in the world. In 2013, Germany recycled 69% of its waste for its material value, and a further 10% was used to generate electricity or biofuel, which exceeds the EU target of 50% by 2020.

The German Life Cycle Law (KrWG) is the central federal law governing German waste management. The aim of the law is "to promote the management of the life cycle of materials, to conserve natural resources, and to protect people and the environment during the creation and handling of wastes, and in particular the recycling and other recovery of usable materials from wastes".

The recovery of value from plastic waste is a very important issue in the modern waste management economy. Plastics, as opposed to metal, glass, and paper, is not so easy to recycle. However, the amount of plastic that is consumed every day is growing continuously, And plastic is a very great hazard for the environment, since it does not biodegrade, or does so only after a long time. Of the 11.6 Mt annual plastics production, 42% (5.68 Mt) is recycled as separately collected plastic waste.

The German waste landfill ordinance, which came into force on 1st June 2005, prohibits the deposit into landfill of materials which can be utilised for energy recovery or recycled. Only inert products with a ignition loss of less than 5% by weight may be landfilled.

The rate of recycling, however, seems to have reached a plateau, from 2006 to 2010 there was no increase. The rate of energy recovery through incineration, however, has continued to increase, with an overall 56% increase by 2010 over the 2001 figure. This is an increase from 22% in 2001 to 35% in 2010 of total MSW waste generated.

The success can be attributed to sound policies, at federal and state levels. These include reduction in biodegradable waste being sent to landfill, a ban on untreated waste being landfilled, producer responsibility, and public involvement in efficient and ubiquitous separate collection programmes.

The new recycling bin system has the objective of increasing the segregated collection of plastics by the 7 categories, as well as increased metal and bio-waste separate collection.

Content © Renewable.Media. All rights reserved. Created : October 8, 2015 Last updated :November 22, 2015

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