Resource Use

Nothing left behind: Cost-effective solution for leftover mixed waste

Material Recovery and Biological Treatment (MRBT) systems are a cost-effective approach for treating leftover mixed waste according to a new report by Zero Waste Europe (ZWE), incurring lower costs than incineration. 

MRBT Zero Waste EuropeMRBT technology combines the use of advanced sorting systems applied to mixed waste, to extract additional material for recycling, with biological treatment of the remaining residual waste – to stabilise the waste before its being landfilled.

The study, conducted by Equanimator, modelled the systems on two scales: 100 thousand tonnes (100kt), and 200 thousand tonnes (200kt). These were further modelled in two scenarios: lower-cost EU Member States and higher-cost EU Member States for states with lower or higher costs of labour, electricity and land. In all instances, MRBT performed more efficiently, when compared to incineration.

The costs associated with the MRBT facilities are in the range of €97 to €123 per tonne for the 100kt system, and €76 to €96 per tonne for the 200kt system. MRBT systems also require relatively little capital commitment. These vary between €296 to €377 per tonne/year for the 100kt facility and €242 to 304 for the 200kt facility. The costs are well under half what would be expected for an incineration facility.

MRBT becomes even more compelling when incinerators are included in the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) when carbon emissions from incineration are formally acknowledged resulting in increased taxes for incinerators. The ETS forms a part of the EU's policy to combat climate change and aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions cost-effectively. It is the world's biggest carbon market. On 22 June 2022, the European Parliament approved a reform of the ETS which meant that it will include municipal waste incineration plants as of 2026. This will result in increased taxes for incinerators.

Janek Vähk, ZWE’s Climate, Energy, and Air Pollution Programme Coordinator, states: “We have a climate crisis and EU funds should be used to implement MRBT across Europe.

“These systems must be considered by all EU countries to comply with their circular economy commitments. This report shows that MRBT works, it’s cost-effective, and it brings us closer to our zero emissions target – it’s effectively a proof of concept, so let’s make sure we use it everywhere to address the climate emergency.”

Other benefits of Material Recovery and Biological Treatment-based (MRBT) systems

The study also demonstrated the benefits of MRBT for extracting plastics for recycling purposes from mixed waste. MRBT systems embed the needed equipment and processing systems that may support an ever-increasing amount of separately collected materials for recycling, as required by the ambitious mid and long-term targets of the EU’s Waste Framework Directive.

ZWE previously found that MRBT brings about relevant benefits in terms of the minimisation of greenhouse gases (GHGs) from the management of leftover mixed waste, it secures compliance with the obligation to pretreat waste before landfilling under EU legislation, and at the same time keeps operational flexibility to allow the system to keep working on reduction, reuse and recycling, and avoids any lock-in. Incineration causes a lock-in effect which often prevents proper recycling, due to the need to continually feed incinerators with a given tonnage, ensuring the pay-back of investments and eventual profits. 

Overall, MRBT has the potential to manage mixed waste in a responsible manner and at an acceptable cost. It offers a flexible system to extract additional materials for recycling while eliminating methane from landfills and avoiding CO2 from the incineration of fossil-based materials, such as plastics and synthetic textiles.

Dominic Hogg, Director at Equanimator, adds: “The relevance of MRBT systems at a global level is potentially enormous both in terms of energy and greenhouse gas saving associated with materials recycling but also because of its potential of zero methane landfilling. We really should be doing it everywhere”.