Waste and Recycling Management — Superheroes in the Fight Against Climate Change

Melanie Rainer02/26/2021

Christmas is a time for contemplation, charity and easing off. Not in retail though. Most industries have their busiest time of the year at Christmas. Children are on the receiving end of masses of presents and the adults are more than happy to keep the gifts flowing. However, it is not only the economy that experiences a massive surge, but the waste industry as well—which is under particularly strain during this period. Vast quantities of waste have to be processed and disposed of. Unwanted gifts end up in the trash or are returned, where they are often destroyed as not resaleable. This is not a new scenario for the waste and recycling industry, after all it is their day-to-day business. However, there is one thing that we all need to be aware of and which needs to be reiterated: recycling and proper disposal are essential in the effort to slow down climate change. The potential here is huge and a circular economy can reduce CO2 emissions many times over. Savings in other industries and sectors are somewhat more complicated.

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Why Your Broken Children's Toys Could Help Save CO2

At the heart of the circular economy is the reuse of raw materials at the end of their life cycle. In the case of a toy made of plastic, this means returning it to the cycle by sorting, cleaning, remelting and finally selling it to plastic-processing industrial companies. So the majority of the basic material from an unwanted and broken children’s toy can flow into the production of a new item. Using recycled plastic can save up to 50%  of CO2.

This process is also transferable to other raw materials. Currently, for example, Germany uses 15% recyclates. Increasing the ratio to 30% would result in a saving of 60 million tonnes of CO2. In Austria, only 9.7% of all raw materials are in a circular cycle. The country is slightly ahead of the world economy which stood at 9.1% in 2018. That sounds very little at first—and, unfortunately, it is. The term “circularity gap” thus describes the shortfall to the goal of a complete circular economy and which still needs to be filled. The annual Circularity Gap Report for 2020 even shows a decline in the recycling rate at 8.1% worldwide. 

Germany Sets the Pace

Germany is a case in point for how the circular economy can be promoted in general. Consistent collection of waste materials, mandatory recycling quotas, thermal use of residual materials, innovative technologies in the recovery of waste wood and paper, light packaging, glass, organic and green waste require commitment from waste and recycling companies. But the wastewater industry also makes its contribution to CO2 reduction by reusing the fermentation gases. The Federal Environment Agency has calculated a savings potential of an additional 10 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent for 2020. 

Landfill is Not a Solution

What is the situation in Europe, on the other hand? In some European countries, landfill is still a common disposal method. In 2007 alone, 106 million tonnes of municipal waste went to landfill in the EU. There are considerable differences within Europe. While Austria, Germany and Luxembourg do not allow landfilling, elsewhere there are 15 countries with landfill rates of more than 30%. Montenegro leads with almost 80%, Cyprus with about 73% and Greece with 72%. This technique removes valuable raw materials from the circular economy; they are lost forever. In addition, landfilling of waste is a real climate change driver due to the gases emitted.

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Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions Together

It was agreed in the European Climate Alliance that a 20% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions needs to be achieved by 2020. This corresponds to an equivalent of approximately 600 million tons of CO2. Calculations show that the entire European waste management and recycling industry can contribute over 200 million tonnes of these. This is about one third of the required amount. The EU had already set mandatory recycling quotas in place in 2018 to support the circular economy. By 2025, 55% (by 2030 60%, by 2035 65%) of municipal waste has to be recycled. In addition, separate collection for textiles and household hazardous waste has to be introduced by January 1, 2025. In addition to the existing collections, organic waste collection or recycling on site (composting) must also be ensured by December 31, 2023. The following recycling rates have been set for the existing collections for 2025: Plastic 50%, wood 25%, ferrous metals 70%, aluminum 50%, glass 70%, paper and cardboard 75% and all other packaging 65%. (5) Achievement of these quotas needs to be supported by the reduction of landfilling to 5 – 10% of the volume and an extension of producer responsibility. It is hoped that these measures will lead to an EU-wide prioritization of the circular economy and a resulting reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

Room for Improvement for the Waste and Recycling Industry 

The waste management and recycling industry has probably not yet achieved a superhero status, but the potential is great and gives hope for the future. Reducing landfill alone can have a positive impact on greenhouse gas emissions. By consistently increasing recycling rates and supporting a genuine circular economy, not only can climate targets be achieved, but a valuable contribution can also be made to putting the brakes on climate change. 

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Melanie Rainer
Senior Consultant