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Pre-sort all mixed waste to cut emissions, report suggests

New research says that sorting mixed waste prior to thermal treatment such as incineration could save up to a quarter of the emissions of Europes waste management sector.

The key element of a report from Eunomia Research and Consulting (ERC) is the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions associated with waste. Mixed waste sorting (MWS) is seen an effective method for ensuring that energy-intensive materials are not lost to landfill or energy recovery but can be recycled, displacing the need for virgin materials.​ 

‘Mixed Waste Sorting to meet the EU’s Circular Economies Objectives’ was commissioned by campaigning ngos Reloop and Zero Waste Europe (ZWE). ERC examined the role MWS could play in three EU countries with high recycling performance – Germany, Belgium, and Sweden.

It concluded that, in addition to separate collection and improved recyclability of plastic packaging, a full use of effective MWS will help to to hit recycling targets and ensure progress towards the EU’s wider carbon emissions reduction goals. It says MWS could save between 10.2 and 23.2 MtCO₂e per year, depending on the success of separate collection improvements.

‘This would mean savings of up to 21% on the total 2020 EU waste sector emissions. ​​This increases to saving 28 MtCO₂e/annum, equivalent to 25% of EU waste sector emissions, if more ambitious MWS with greater sorting efficiencies is rolled out.​’ 

The report adds that the introduction of mandatory MWS would also help to ensure that plastic and paper packaging recycling targets for 2030 will be consistently met, and contribute between 2.9 and 8.2 percentage points to municipal waste recycling targets.

Janek Vähk, ZWE’s climate, energy and air pollution programme coordinator says: ‘It’s clear that MSW is an essential solution to achieve climate targets. In addition to separate collection, its complementary role needs to be recognised by EU policies.’ 

Clarissa Morawski, ceo, Reloop adds: ‘Only when all member states introduce measures to effectively sort recyclables from mixed waste prior to thermal treatment and landfilling across the EU, will there be any degree of confidence that plastic and paper packaging recycling targets will be consistently met and circularity of resources maximised.’

ZWE and Reloop suggestions include the following actions to enable a quicker transition towards greater circularity: 

  • mandated use of mixed waste sorting systems to remove recyclable materials prior to incineration
  • require operators using mixed wastes for renewable energy generation to apply MWS systems which meet relevant performance criteria
  • remove the accreditation of R1 so that incineration of municipal waste is no longer classified as ‘recovery’
  • ban incineration and disposal of recyclable /reusable materials

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