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Recycling vs. Incineration: How to maximise the value of plastic waste?

Austria – ‘In Austria, every twentieth job is a green job,’ according to Christian Holzer of the country’s ministry of environment. More than 11% of the nation’s GDP is being generated in this sector, he pointed out at the Identiplast conference held last week in the Austrian capital Vienna.

Austria has a plastic recycling rate of just under 30% while some 70% of material is directed into waste-to-energy operations, Holzer quoted from 2014 figures. ‘I cannot stress enough the need for landfill taxation or, better yet, a full-on landfill ban,’ the official said. ‘We have already enacted a ban in Austria, with good results.’

The ‘key challenge’ is to achieve both high-quality material and a higher quantity of recycling. ‘Somehow, this must be possible,’ Holzer insisted. He went on to underline the importance of strengthening the recycling market by increasing confidence in recycled products as well as stimulating the willingness of companies to incorporate recycled content.

The energy recovery bridge

‘Waste-to-energy plants will make us less dependent on fossil fuel imports,’ asserted Ella Stengler, managing director of the Confederation of European Waste-to-Energy Plants. Also, about 50% of the energy produced by energy recovery plants is renewable.

The 483 incineration plants across Europe processed 88.6 million tonnes of household, commercial and industrial waste that remained after recycling in 2014, Stengler contended. This is enough to supply 17 million people with electricity and 15 million with heat per year.

She called energy recovery a ‘bridge’ towards the circular economy. As she put it: ‘We are the guys you need after recycling and reuse and redesign.’

Who is ‘the bad guy’?

Hugo Maria Shally, head of the EU’s Eco Innovation Unit, offered a different perspective. ‘I want to contradict something that has been said earlier – namely that incineration is not the bad guy,’ he stated. ‘It’s basic chemistry – you burn the material so you waste the material. The value disappears.’ He slammed waste-to-energy as being nothing more than a ‘euphemism’.

Shally concluded: ‘Granted, incineration is necessary for a transitional period, but that’s it.’

‘Powerful concept’

The circular economy is a ‘powerful concept’, remarked Craig Cookson of the American Chemistry Council. ‘From what I can tell, US companies are certainly trying to incorporate circular economy principles into their products and services.’

However, it is not having a major legislative impact. ‘There is more focus on extended producer responsibility schemes, with producers trying to stimulate voluntary initiatives,’ Cookson explained. The state of Oregon was said to be notably ‘ahead of the curve’, followed closely by Minnesota.

Generally speaking, however, the government is not yet ‘warming’ to the circular economy lobby, he told delegates.

A full review of Identiplast will be published in issue #2 of Recycling International.

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