Being one of the leading recycling, service and water companies, REMONDIS has approximately 1,000 business locations around the globe. These can be found in over 30 countries across Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia.
REMONDIS’ business operations in Germany are managed by six regional companies. Moreover, a whole variety of specialist REMONDIS companies are based here in Germany as well.
Even the very best, most advanced and most expensive recycling processes are doomed to fail if the input quality is not good enough. If a blue bin or a yellow bin contains really dirty materials, such as used nappies, then all of the contents are contaminated and none of them can be recycled. Almost just as problematic is when materials – that can easily be recycled – end up in the wrong bin. A plastic bag in an organic waste bin has a really negative impact on the environment. If the composting plant is unable to pick it out, then it is shredded and ends up in the compost in hundreds and thousands of tiny pieces. Which means farmers around the world not only spread fertiliser on their fields but large volumes of microplastic as well.
Conclusion: For the most part, it is not the plants run by the recycling companies that determine how well a product is recycled and what quality comes out at the end. What is key is how a waste’s journey actually begins. For example in your own home.
Up until the 1980s, there was just one type of bin in Germany: the grey bin. Things have changed since then. The general waste bin has not only found itself surrounded by other different coloured bins, it has also been getting smaller and smaller. A sign that things are heading in the right direction. While the blue, brown and yellow bins mean recycling, the grey bin stands for destruction. Everything that ends up in this bin is incinerated. Which means the ultimate goal must be to reach a state where it is no longer needed. This goal, though, can only be reached if everyone plays their part. Consumers by systematically sorting their waste correctly; the industry by manufacturing recyclable products; and the circular economy by supplying suitable recycling technology. And, of course, we need our politicians to create the necessary legislative framework.
So much more can be done to reduce volumes of general waste: at the moment, two-thirds of the materials found in the grey bins belong in a different bin.
Just like any other circular economy business, REMONDIS is spurred on by its wish to separate and recover as many recyclable materials as possible. And, as enablers of climate action, politicians are also interested in moving recycling forward. As a result, mandatory recycling rates are gradually being increased.
Which is why the latest rules and regulations stipulate that at least 63% of plastic waste must be recycled for reuse from 2022 onwards. This figure lay at a mere 36% just a few years ago. Which means: efficiency levels have to be stepped up so that the amount of plastic recovered for recycling is almost doubled. There are two levers that can help achieve this. Besides increasing input quality as mentioned above, the circular economy can also invest in even better sorting technology. Having said that though, it is easier to adjust the lever to ensure materials are better sorted than to adjust the technology lever. Practically every possible technological step has already been taken – especially in the newly built, state-of-the-art plants.
Recycling is all about separating and recovering materials according to type. Which means, in principle, that a recycling plant does the same as consumers do with their wheelie bins – but using a system that is automated, much more precise and able to identify more materials. The goal here is to filter out different kinds of materials (such as metal, paper and plastic) and separate them into individual subcategories. This is achieved primarily with the help of physics. Starting with conventional screening with large sieves to separate the materials according to size, to using blasts of air to remove the lighter materials, all the way through to magnetic separators. High tech really comes into play when the light sensors are deployed. Thanks to the way the different plastics reflect or absorb the light, the machines are able to pick out and segregate the plastic into the subgroups: polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene and PET.
Manufacturers are not making our work easier either. It is practically impossible for even the most modern infrared technology to pick out black plastic trays. Yet another challenge that must be met in the future.
Filtering out individual substances from mixed materials is one of the most common forms of mechanical recycling but it is by no means the only one. There are also cases where it makes sense to operate a special plant for just one specific type of waste. This is particularly true if the waste is generated in large volumes or contains large amounts of recyclable materials. A great example of this is used nappies. As these must be thrown into the general waste bin, they are automatically sent for incineration which means that the recyclable materials (plastic and paper) are also destroyed. The solution here would be to set up a dedicated collection scheme for used nappies so they can be sent on to a specialist nappy recycling facility. And we have developed just such a plant in the Netherlands as part of a pilot project. The special feature of this process: the nappies are not incinerated but melted down instead. This enables the individual components of the used nappy – plastic, paper and faeces – to be separated from one another. The latter is even used to produce climate-friendly biogas.
Sometimes even the most cutting-edge sorting machinery is bound to fail. In this case, though, “sometimes” should perhaps be substituted with “some things” – namely composite materials. Their particular hallmark: their different materials have been mixed together in such a way that it is impossible to separate them from one another again. Composite materials are used in a whole range of products, such as drinks packaging. With their combination of positive properties, composite materials certainly offer a number of advantages. But those advantages come to an abrupt end when the useful product becomes a waste product.
The goal here must be to only use composite materials if it is absolutely necessary. In an ideal world, manufacturers and consumers would eventually stop using these material mixtures altogether. To be able to reach this stage, there needs to be relevant political guidelines in place, for example an Ecodesign Directive that has been extended to include the subject of raw material efficiency. It would also be good to have a recycling label that lets consumers know how recyclable a product is and to what extent a product has been made using climate and resource-friendly recycled raw materials.