Trash Talking: Recycling 2035

Recycling has come a long way since 1990, but what will the policies, practices and technologies look like in 2035? WMW asked some industry leaders for their views.

Recycling has come a long way since 1990. Driving much of this has been a combination of the policies implemented by many governments around the world, innovative new sorting and processing technologies and market forces.
But what will the policies, practices and technologies look like in 2035? WMW asked some industry leaders for their views.

Evolution not Revolution   Dr. Andreas Bartl
is vice chair of the ISWA Working Group on Recycling and Waste Minimisation

Over the years European waste management has evolved significantly. The fraction of municipal solid waste that is recycled has increased from 13% in 1990 to 42% in 2010. However, it is clear that this development is not linear. It is expected that further improvements are limited and the recycling rate in 2020 will not exceed 50%.

Despite waste prevention holding the highest priority it is unlikely that there will be no waste in 2035. In contrast, it is expected that the annual average waste generation in OECD countries will increase to 650 – 700 kg/capita.

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Despite the development of 'easy-to-repair' product design, long-lasting products or enhancement of reuse; a clear de-linking of economic growth from waste generation will still only be in its infancy. Thus, recycling will continue to play an important role. No revolution will occur, but where will evolution lead us?

Separate collection of end-of-life products, in particular packaging, will be further increased. Even if sorting and recycling technologies are significantly improved and mechanised, a separation at source will be an inevitable prerequisite for an economic recycling schedule. Different countries will have different solutions, but in Europe, collection of mixed MSW will become history.

Due to resource scarcity, the recycling of products such as vehicles and electronics will be significantly increased. While the recycling rate for rare earth elements is below 1% today, improved technologies as well as escalating prices for raw materials will enable a dramatic increase of the recycling rate for numerous materials. This will be a long and challenging journey, but as a result European countries will be less dependent on imports of raw materials and many jobs will be created.

Waste trafficking from Europe into third world countries will be largely ended. On the one hand prices for raw materials as well as sophisticated recycling technologies will make recycling more economic than exporting. On the other hand waste trafficking will be recognised as a crime.

Waste management will have largely evolved into resource management. Traditional waste management companies will closely cooperate with producers and retailers to cover the complete supply chain. Due to this close cooperation recycling will not be a pure effect of legislation, but will have significant economic advantages. Closed, or almost closed material cycles will be an economic necessity for the European industry since it helps to reduce the dependency of energy and raw material imports.

Costs and Prices Will Drive Increased Circularity   Paul Dumpleton
is a regional development manager for FCC Environment

The move towards the circular economy is at the very beginning of its influence and this will, in time, have a far-reaching effect on the recycling and waste sector.

By 2035 the global trading of recyclable materials will have reduced to the pre-China days and the world will have reset itself along the lines of self-sufficiency in Europe, Asia, the Americas and Africa.

The drive for quality will continue. Ultimately this will reduce the cost of reprocessing and therefore of finished goods. The big difference lies with advances in technology. Particulate recognition will be so advanced that separation of material streams will be far more accurate allowing for simpler collection systems.

In the last 20 years we have seen tremendous strides in optical recognition, and with the move towards Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) and x-ray sorting material, streams that were once thought impossible to separate will become mainstream by 2035.

The supply chain will have fully embraced the concepts of design for recycling and where possible composite packaging will have become a thing of the past. Driven by cost, viability and customer demand, packaging will be far more streamlined in every sense. Lightening of materials will have gone as far as it can but it is likely that there will be room for improvement in terms of product design.

By 2035 certain material streams will have changed completely with the full integration of digital media. Newsprint in particular will have reduced to virtually insignificant levels and glass will undoubtedly have lost even more market share to plastics as PET advances. Card, metals and plastics will dominate the material sectors and their collection and processing will be the focus for both municipal and commercial sectors.

Energy, or more specifically the cost of energy, will be the main driver for industry. It is generally acknowledged that at some point in the future the high cost of energy may well change the financial dynamics of residual waste, with generators receiving payment for their waste. When this happens, recyclable materials that do not hold specific value such as low-grade paper and certain plastics will be consumed as energy.

Recyclable materials as we know them today will be very different and most may well fall into the same category as precious metals where the value is high but the demand for purity is extreme.

It is almost certain that landfill mining will be in the portfolio of most waste management companies, which by 2035 will almost certainly be known as 'resource companies'. Advances in technology and the value of commodities will provide the economic stimulus to drive this through.

The market may well have changed significantly, but the social demand for the consumption of natural resources will ensure that resource management is critical and high on the political agenda.

Energy and Commodity Prices Will Dictate the Future   Cees Duijn
is director of Nihot, a part of the Bulk Handling Systems group of companies

We see the major driving force for our business as the idea that waste is no longer seen simply 'waste', but as a resource. This changing perspective is already occurring, and will continue to the point where we will see increased urban mining and even landfill mining. But of course, this will only happen because it makes financial sense.

In terms of the shape the waste and recycling industry will take, we will increasingly see the waste management companies themselves developing their own technologies. For example we have already seen New Earth Solutions' develop a two stage pyrolysis system utilising a combination of proven technologies.

In an ideal world, resource development will combine waste recycling with the recovery of both energy and fuel from wastes. However, it is very difficult to put this situation into a global context because there are many developing countries where they still burn waste, or dump it in water. Even within Europe there is a wide variation in waste treatment. In Bulgaria 100% of waste is landfilled – in the Netherlands that number is less than 2%.

In rapidly developing countries other factors will continue to impact the goal of treating waste as high up the waste hierarchy as possible. For example, Turkey has a population of around 82 million and economic growth of something like 6% to 8% per year.

The wealth is growing rapidly, and hence the country's waste production is also growing rapidly – as are its energy requirements. Increasingly waste is being viewed as a potential source of fuel and power, with a number of waste to energy facilities already proposed. However, for economic reasons, the recycling of materials is likely to remain on the back burner.

Financial factors are also at play in developed countries, where the need to recover a range of critical materials will lead to the continued increase in the separate collection of e-waste.

As China increases its interest in the global mining industries, and the supply of virgin materials, recovering scarce metals and other critical materials from waste will be of growing importance.

The technology is already there. It's unbelievable what we can achieve at fully automated recycling facilities. The big drivers will be commodity prices, which in 20 years will be controlled by the Chinese, and energy prices. It's as simple as that.

Politics too will continue to be an important driver. In the EU particularly, politicians are keen to be seen to be 'green'. I am convinced that we will reach a level where recycling becomes very easy because we are training our children at school to view waste as a resource.

Technology Important But Don't Forget to Share Best Practice   Jonathan Clarke
is UK country manager of TOMRA Sorting.

The next ten years are certainly going to be a key phase in terms of recycling on a global scale. The west has made significant progress in terms of its ability to better manage domestic waste through kerbside recycling or mixed dry recyclable plants. In developed countries, this box has pretty much been ticked.

However, this is not the case in developing countries where single bag collection is the biggest opportunity for the future of recycling. Countries such as Russia, China, South America and some of the Eastern block countries currently have no separate kerbside collection of domestic waste, so there is much room for improvement in these areas.

For the developed world, where kerbside and mixed dry recyclables are operating successfully, the biggest growth area will be residual waste sorting plants or recovery prior to waste to energy. MBT, recovery of material from waste to energy facilities and the production of RDF are all likely to grow extensively over the next ten or so years.

C&I waste is another area that is set for future expansion. The UK is leading the way in the recovery of valuable material from C&I waste. The past few years have seen a marked increase in the number of dedicated C&I MRFs in the UK, with ten plants now established and operational.

The recycling of C&I waste is likely to become the norm in the future, particularly given that advances in technology are making it possible to address even the most challenging aspects of C&I waste sorting.

We can't however, rely solely on technology to guarantee future recycling success – we must also focus on improving processes. We would expect to see more established best practices and knowledge sharing across the global recycling industry.

In the UK, for example, it is hoped that the Government's forthcoming MRF Code of Practice will go some way to developing MRF best practice and guidance on how to optimise income generation and improve the quality of recyclate outputs. Although landfill diversion is key, more emphasis must be placed on recovering value from the material that would otherwise have ended up in landfill.

The global waste management industry has to wake up to the commercial opportunities that are there for the taking if they can put the right technology and processes in place.

Finally, product packaging legislation will continue to play a key role in the recycling industry's future. Further developments in this legislation will have the greatest impact as packaging companies look to improve their design in a bid to make it as easy as possible to engage consumers in the recycling process.

No single policy, practice or technology will provide a solution for further global advances in recycling. Instead, we must look at what how far we've come in the past 20 years – and make a concerted effort to maintain the momentum by investing in technology, sharing best practice, improving processes and addressing packaging challenges.

The future is what we make of it   Ray Georgeson
is chief executive of the Resource Association

It is a brave person that feels they can confidently predict how the recycling world may look in 2035, but the one prediction that can be made is that it won't have stood still and will certainly look different!

In many ways I suspect we will have turned full circle. Not just in terms of fully embracing the potential and the imperative that is presented by the circular economy, but also in terms of our approach to the collection and sorting of materials and products.

The current obsession and trend towards mixed material collection and reliance on technology to solve all contamination and sorting challenges will have ended. Sorting technology will undoubtedly continue to improve and be of real value, but the MRFs of poorer quality and lower investment will have been mothballed and probably reopened as SSFs - Specialist Sorting Facilities.

These will be much more focused on the extraction of every morsel of value from materials and products, probably with more specialist emphasis on deconstruction and remanufacturing. This will be driven by economic value in the recovery not just of high material value products but of the basics as well - the plastics, fibres, glass and metals that form the backbone of our materials economy.

While the proportions of different materials in the resource stream will inevitably change, the need for separation systems and ingrained public understanding and support for good collection services will remain.

The move towards a circular economy will change everyone's shared role in the resource systems. Combined with global resource challenges, and the geopolitical tensions resulting from them, this changed role will manifest itself as a revived culture of conservation, even a modern day return to the 'wartime spirit' of salvage for the national good.

I only hope that this happens positively in a way that heads off the worst scenarios for global resource wars and not in response to actual conflict - but there is no denying the likelihood of this in 2035 and we should anticipate and react with a positive solution.

This may sound like a doom-laden future but it doesn't have to be. The ability of our industry to react and shape the future materials economy and contribute to the need to create more jobs, save more carbon and eliminate resource inefficiency is a powerful factor.

We can shape the future in a strong and positive way by embracing change, addressing the relationship with the consumer and householder to fully involve them in the challenge, and ensure that governments understand the real future value of our industry.

If we manage all that by 2035, I shall enjoy my retirement party on the newly opened HS2 from London to Leeds (aged 74) with good cheer!