700,000 tons of plastic is incinerated or landfilled with other household waste in the Nordics each year. Collecting and recycling this plastic in new products would be highly beneficial, both from economic and environmental perspectives. Nordic experts have presented measures to increase recycling rates of plastic from households, suggested improvements to sorting of plastic at recycling centres, and identified potentials for enhanced recycling of electronic waste.
By Páll Tómas Finnsson
Increased collection is key to increased recycling
The Nordic Waste Group launched the programme Resource efficient recycling of plastic and textile waste in 2012 as part of the Nordic Prime Ministers’ green growth initiative, The Nordic Region – leading in green growth. Three of the projects in this initiative have addressed how the Nordic countries could collect, sort and recycle a larger proportion of the plastics consumed in the region.
“We need to become much better at collecting, sorting and recycling plastic from residual waste from households,” says Sanna Due-Sjöström, Head of the Nordic Waste Group (NWG). “In order to establish a strong Nordic recycling market, we must ensure that the secondary plastic material is of good enough quality to substitute virgin plastics in new production.”
The majority of the plastic thrown out with household waste is plastic packaging that has not been separated from the waste stream. The key to more resource-efficient utilisation of this plastic is more collection and better sorting, either at the source or at central sorting facilities.
“The objective is to collect more of the generated plastic packaging waste from households in the collection and recycling systems,” says Anna Fråne of the Swedish Environmental Research Institute. “A key issue is to ensure that the collected material contains as little contaminants as possible to limit the amount of rejects in the following sorting processes. This is decisive for the profitability and environmental benefit of the collection and recycling.”
The report ‘Future solutions for Nordic plastic recycling’ presents the project’s recommendations on how to increase recycling of plastic from household waste and other municipal waste sources. The recommendations are based on a study of the collection systems in the five countries and a quantification of the plastic waste flows.
“What surprised us is how different the Nordic systems actually are,” says project manager Åsa Stenmarck of IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute. As an example, Sweden focuses more on source-separation than the other countries, while in Norway there is larger interest in central sorting combined with source-separation. Also, producer responsibility is applied in Sweden, Norway and Finland, but not in Denmark. “Due to these differences, it’s not possible to come up with one single solution for all the countries,” Stenmarck adds.
The recommendations focus on common issues, such as the availability of the collection system for the consumer, which plastic waste fractions should be collected and sorted, and how the Nordic countries could work together to create market opportunities. Lastly, the report emphasizes that collection systems should be designed and organised with flexibility in mind.
“Our systems must be able to adapt to any future changes in the composition of the incoming material and market situation,” says Larsen.
Guidelines for decision-making at recycling centres
The role of recycling centres in plastic waste collection varies somewhat between the Nordic countries, mostly due to differences in the implementation of the packaging directive. The centres often complement other elements of the waste collection systems, such as kerbside collection of plastic material.
Despite the differences in their operations, Nordic recycling centres face many of the same challenges when it comes to increasing sorting and recycling of plastic waste. In general, their role has become more complex, as more and more plastic waste is being collected in separate fractions.
Guideline for sorting of plastic at recycling centres aims to improve the centres’ sorting processes, with the simple objectives to increase quantity and quality of the collected plastic, and to avoid harmful substances in the recycled materials. It is designed as a decision-support tool for the centres’ management, addressing everything from potential plastic categories and sorting methods to information for the public and training of personnel.
“Communication with potential buyers is a key issue for the recycling centres,” says Larsen. “We need to invest in getting a better overview of the market situation, find out which plastics represent the biggest value, which fractions can be mixed and which can’t, and whether buyers are willing to pay more for cleaner fractions of certain types of plastic.”
“Last but not least, it’s important to know which plastic types shouldn’t be recycled at all,” he says. “This is also described in the guide.”
Potential for greater recycling of electronic waste
Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment, WEEE, also represents a potential for increased recycling of plastics in the Nordic Region. After metal, plastic is the most common material used in production of electronics, but only around 25% of it is recycled.
“This is partly due to the complex composition of WEEE, which poses a challenge for both the collection and the recycling,” says Larsen. “Also, WEEE often contains hazardous substances, such as flame retardants, which need to be appropriately managed.”
Nordic Plastic Value Chains – Case WEEE has presented an overview of the WEEE plastic waste situation in the Nordic countries and identified potential areas for improvement. These include ensuring that a larger proportion of the waste enters the official recycling system, improving the traceability of the plastics along the value chain, and providing producers with incentives to focus on design for recycling.
Better control of illegal exports and recycling is a key priority, according to Larsen.
“Internationally, large quantities of electronic goods are exported to developing countries as used electrical and electronic equipment, although in reality they should be classified as waste,” he says. “Preventing this requires clear international definitions of EE-waste and products, which is something we continually address with our European and international colleagues.”
The results from the three plastic recycling projects are currently being presented to relevant stakeholders in the Nordic Region, i.e. municipalities and decision-makers, and in international forums for plastic recycling and waste management. The results have already been presented at the ‘International Symposium on Northern Development’ in Quebec in Canada, and will be featured at the ‘International Waste Management and Landfill Symposium’ in Sardinia in October.
Development in municipal waste generation and in municipal waste management by treatment method