Sorting residual waste ‘key to meeting EU’s Circular Economy Objectives’

EU waste sector emissions could be reduced by up to 25 per cent if members states mandate mixed waste sorting (MWS) prior to residual treatment, according to a new report published by NGO’s Reloop and Zero Waste Europe (ZWE).

Sorting residual waste ‘key to meeting EU’s Circular Economy Objectives’The report, Mixed waste sorting is key to meeting the EU’s Circular Economy Objectives, undertaken by Eunomia, examines the impact of MWS in Germany, Belgium, and Sweden, three countries already with comparatively high recycling rates. It finds that the implementation of effective MWS systems can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase recycling rates.

The climate change impact of waste management has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years, with the European Environment Agency reporting that the waste sector accounts for approximately three per cent of Europe's total greenhouse gas emissions.

The report states that effective implementation of mixed waste sorting can save between 10.2 and 23.2 MtCO₂e/annum in the EU, depending on the success of separate collection improvements. If more ambitious MWS with greater sorting efficiencies is rolled out, this could increase to a saving of 28 MtCO₂e/annum, equivalent to 25 per cent of EU waste sector emissions.

Secondly, the report highlights the potential for mixed waste sorting to improve recycling rates. The addition of MWS in Germany is projected to raise recycling rates in 2030 from 50 to 62 per cent, from 53 to 65 per cent in Belgium, and from approximately 44 to 58 per cent in Sweden. This increase in recycling rates can contribute 2.9 - 8.2 per cent to the municipal waste recycling targets, depending on the level of ambition in MWS and the success of separate collection improvements.

In addition to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and improving recycling rates, mixed waste sorting can also displace the need for virgin materials. By separating valuable resources from the waste stream, MWS can contribute to the circular economy by ensuring that energy-intensive materials are not lost to landfill or energy recovery. However, the report does not specify nor audit technical solutions for the recovery of packaging materials from residual waste.

Janek Vähk, ZWE’s Climate, Energy, and Air Pollution Programme Coordinator said: “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.” 

Potential steps to mandate MWS
The report identifies several mechanisms that the EU can take to require member states to implement forms of mixed waste sorting.

It suggests that the EU's revised Waste Framework Directive (rWFD) and Industrial Emissions Directive (IED) could be revised to mandate the use of MWS systems of a defined quality to remove recyclable materials prior to incineration. This could include removing the energy efficiency formula (R1) in the rWFD, such that ‘municipal waste incineration is no longer able to be classified as recovery’.

Another option, with significant gains in terms of overall emissions reductions, will be to ban incineration and disposal of packaging materials (through the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive).

Commenting on the report Clarissa Morawski, CEO of Reloop: “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 maximized.”

Andy Grant, Technical Director at Eunomia Research & Consulting who was Project Director for the production of the report said: “The EU is already leading the way on the circular economy transition and the addition of mixed waste sorting systems alongside separate collection systems and improved packaging recyclability will continue to support this by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and improving recycling rates.”