Hunting for Hidden Treasure - The International Trade Fair for Waste Management and Environmental Technology shows how waste can be turned into valuable resources

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Source: Koelnmesse

Urban mining — the recovery of raw materials from waste — is the vision of the future for the global waste-management industry. This aims to conserve natural resources and protect the environment, but that's not all. For today, there are also increasingly good business reasons to recycle and reuse materials from the waste generated in advanced economies. This is because of a growing demand — and accompanying price increases — for primary raw materials such as oil, iron ore, copper, aluminium and platinum in up-and-coming economies such as China, India and the countries in Latin America. Exhibitors at the forthcoming Entsorga-Enteco — International Trade Fair for Waste Management and Environmental Technology (Cologne, 24th to 27th October 2006) will be demonstrating all the latest methods and technologies used to recover the treasures hidden away in waste. The supporting programme will also focus on this topic, including the opening conference and a subsequent panel discussion on 'Recovering Treasure from Waste —Sustainable Recycling Worldwide'.

The countries of the European Union (EU) have already moved some way from merely disposing of waste — albeit in an environmentally compatible manner — to the recycling and recovery of secondary raw materials. All in all, the 25 countries of the EU generated some 250,000 million tonnes of household waste in 2003. Although almost half of such waste still ends up in landfill sites, as much as 34 per cent of it is now being recycled. On average, the proportion of waste recycled within the EU has therefore risen by 10 per cent since 1997, with most of the increase going to reduce the amount of waste deposited at landfill sites. A further 17 per cent is used thermally in incineration plants.

Whereas countries such as Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden and Germany recycle between 30 and over 60 per cent of their waste, others such as France, Ireland, Italy and Slovenia only manage between 15 and 30 per cent. In addition, some materials are recycled more than others. On average, the proportion of recycled material currently used for the production of paper and steel in the EU is at least 50 per cent, for glass 43 per cent, and for non-ferrous metals 40 per cent.

Primarily responsible for this development has been European legislation in waste disposal, the foundations of which were first laid with the general framework of 1975. Amongst other things, this obliged EU member states to implement measures to reduce, recycle and dispose of waste in an environmentally compatible way. At the same time, it also tackled problem materials such as waste oil, batteries and titanium oxide. In a second phase, standards were introduced for waste-incineration plants and landfill sites. Thirdly, targets were set for the recycling and treatment of selected types of waste such packaging, scrap vehicles, and electrical and electronic scrap. And, last but not least, a European directive was introduced to control waste transport in and between individual EU member states as well as between the EU and non-EU countries.

A new strategy to reduce waste

Although there has been major progress in the area of waste policy, it has consistently failed in one area: to achieve a reduction in the total amount of waste produced. In fact, according to the European Commission, the volume of residual household waste rose by 19 per cent between 1995 and 2003. This corresponds exactly to the rate of growth of GDP for the EU as a whole over the same period. In other words, waste production remains firmly tied to economic growth. Each European currently produces over 530 kilograms of household waste per year. Originally, the target was to cut this figure by 200 kilograms by the year 2000, as specified in the Fifth Environmental Action Programme, which has since been overhauled.

This is another major reason why the EU is now reformulating waste policy. Shortly before Christmas 2005, the European Commission presented a Thematic Strategy for Waste Reduction and Recycling as well as a proposal for a new Waste Directive. The aim of both is to advance recycling within the EU so as to reduce the production of waste and use it as a resource.

At the heart of the new European waste policy is a consideration of the environmental impact of a product over its entire lifecycle. Here, the fundamental aim is to optimise the ecological balance of a product from start to finish. This means not only minimising the use of resources but also avoiding as far as possible the production of environmentally harmful substances.

In the future, products should be designed and manufactured in such a way that all unavoidable waste must be as free as possible from pollutants and simple to recycle so that all valuable materials can be easily reintroduced into the production cycle.

Germany is one of the countries that has already largely committed itself to this philosophy of waste reduction or, in cases where this is not possible, to the recycling and reuse of valuable materials. Of the less than 50 million tonnes of household waste now produced in Germany, around 60 per cent is already recycled today.

The remaining or residual waste is either incinerated or treated in mechanical-biological plants. Germany now has almost 70 waste-incineration plants with a combined capacity of over 16 million tonnes per year as well as some 60 mechanical-biological treatment plants for over six million tonnes of waste.

The target of complete recycling

In accordance with the Waste Storage Regulations of 2001 and the Technical Guidelines on Household Waste (TASi) of 1993, as of mid-2005 only household waste that has been previously treated in incineration plants or mechanical-biological facilities can be deposited in a landfill site. At the same time the number of landfill sites in Germany has fallen significantly. Whereas there were still over 8,000 in 1990, this figure had fallen to under 300 by 2004. According to the Federal Ministry of the Environment in Berlin, there will only be between 30 and 111 by the year 2010. Germany's declared aim is to advance the recycling and treatment of waste to such a degree that by 2020 all the valuable materials and energy resources contained in waste can be fully used, with the result that the need for surface storage will largely disappear.

As early as 1996, with the introduction of the Recycling and Waste Management Act (KrW-/AbfG), Germany took a major step towards eliminating the production of unnecessary waste. A key pillar of this legislation has been to make manufacturers and distributors responsible, as much as they are able, for avoiding waste during the development and manufacture of their products. Furthermore, they are also responsible for the return and recycling or disposal of their used products. This can take the form of a voluntary commitment. Should this fail to produce the desired effect, however, the state also has the means to apply accompanying enforcement measures.

Today, there are corresponding laws for waste oil (introduced in 1987/amended in 2002), packaging (1991/2005), end-of-life vehicles (1997/2006) and batteries (1998/2001). Legislation now covers particular types of both industrial waste and waste wood (introduced for both in 2002). Furthermore, voluntary commitments on building waste and printed paper have also been successfully implemented.

This policy has already yielded some remarkable results. Almost 100 per cent of all waste oil, for example, is now recycled. Today, the law stipulates that engine and gearbox oil can only be sold by dealers who are prepared to take it back either at the point of sale or at a location in the immediate vicinity. As a result, around 450,000 tonnes of waste oil are collected every year. One fifth of this is recycled energetically, chiefly in the cement industry, while the rest is refined to produce basic oils, heating oil, bitumen additives or marine fuels. In the process, pollutants, oxidation products and additives are removed.

The recycling of waste paper is also extremely successful. For example, the producers of printed paper originally entered into a commitment to take back and reuse at least 60 per cent of used products by the year 2000. Today, this proportion has risen to over 80 per cent, and the producers have now also guaranteed to sustain this level over the long-term. Similarly, for the type of paper packaging subject to the law on packaging, the recycling rate is at present close to 90 per cent. This means that the material from almost six million tonnes of paper packaging is recycled every year.

Waste glass, an ideal recycling product, is also subject to the law on packaging. Its use in glass production not only cuts the consumption of raw materials but also reduces energy requirements by up to 0.3 per cent for every per cent of waste glass added to the process. Over three million tonnes of waste glass are collected each year, either in special street containers according to colour or in designated household bins. This waste glass is automatically freed of foreign material and labelling, crushed and then chiefly used to produce new bottles and containers for beverages. Today, the proportion of waste glass used in glass production is in some cases higher than 90 per cent.

Exceptional growth

In Germany today, used batteries can be returned at over 160,000 collection points in shops and municipal facilities. Over one billion batteries and rechargeable battery packs are sold every year in Germany — the equivalent of around 30,000 tonnes. In 2004, the recycling rate was 77 per cent. In addition, there are around 14 million vehicle batteries, almost all of which are recycled. The principle aim here is to prevent harmful substances such as mercury and lead from entering the environment. Tighter legislation introduced in 2001 stipulates that only batteries may be sold with a mercury content of less than 0.0005 per cent of their total weight.

There has also been exceptional growth in the collection and recycling

of biogenic waste. Over 12 million tonnes of biodegradable waste from households (leftover food and vegetable and plant matter), gardens and parkland, and agriculture was recycled in 2003. Almost one-third of this was biodegradable waste that would otherwise have landed in the household rubbish. Such material is today processed in over 800 composting plants throughout Germany to produce a variety of valuable products for improving soil quality in agricultural land and gardens. A federal body monitors the quality of the compost produced in this way, thus ensuring that it meets the standards of legislation on biodegradable waste introduced in 1998. Responsible for monitoring this body of legislation as a whole is the German Institute of Quality Control and Labelling (RAL). In addition to the use of composting plants, biodegradable waste is also processed in around 75 fermentation plants to produce biogas.

The story of the implementation of legislation on packaging is also a highly successful one. All the specified targets on the collection and recycling of packaging made of glass, tinplate, aluminium, plastic, paper and liquid-product cartons are now being met. The process of collection and recycling is subject to the Dual System, which was established by manufacturers, retailers and the packaging industry in conjunction with the waste-processing industry. The system is financed by the allocation of licenses to use the 'green dot', a mark by which participants label their packaging. For many years, one company — Duale System Deutschland AG, based in Cologne — organised the collection, sorting and recycling of such packaging. Today, however, largely at the insistence of German and EU antitrust authorities, a number of dual system companies (e.g. Interseroh and Landbell) now compete with one another, chiefly for the business in the lightweight packaging that is collected in the yellow-coloured household bags and bins for recyclable waste. By contrast, there are a variety of regional collection systems in place for the heavier glass and paper.

In this manner, over 10 million tonnes of packaging waste is currently recycled in Germany each year. This success story has been accompanied by a continuous advancement in recycling technology. For example, today's sorting technology is so advanced that it not only separates materials disposed in the yellow-coloured recycling bins fully automatically but is also being tested to extract recyclable materials from the refuse that lands in the grey bins for residual waste. Such technology not only comprises the traditional sorting processes of sieving, sifting, magnetic and swirl separation, and picking but also features increasingly systems such as short-range infrared recognition. Such technology is able, for example, to distinguish and sort the various plastic materials used in packaging, such as PE, PET, PP and PS. This purity of sorting boosts the quality of the materials recovered and thereby their value for reprocessing into secondary plastics.

Increasingly important economic factor

And, last but not least, as of 24th March 2006, all manufacturers of electrical and electronic equipment are legally obliged to take back used large household appliances (e.g. washing machines, fridges and cookers), small household appliances (e.g. vacuum cleaners, coffee machines, hairdryers and microwaves), communications hardware (e.g. computers, monitors, printers, scanners and copiers), consumer electronics (e.g. TVs, video recorders, camcorders, radios, hi-fi systems) and neon tubes. Moreover, they must do this free of charge. Local authorities have to provide collection facilities for such equipment. But from this point onward, the manufacturers and importers of such goods are responsible for all further disposal, including logistics, sorting, dismantling, processing, the recovery of recyclable materials, and the environmentally compatible disposal of any hazardous substances.

All in all, this involves around 1.1 million tonnes of electrical and electronic scrap a year. On the one hand, this contains raw materials such as steel, aluminium, copper, platinum and gold, all of which are becoming more and more valuable on the world market. On the other, it also important to ensure the environmentally compatible disposal of potentially harmful elements such as picture tubes containing lead and cadmium, capacitors, and components treated with flameproof agents, such as printed-circuit boards and plastic housing.

Today, recycling and waste disposal has become a major economic factor. Throughout Europe as a whole, this sector now generates turnover of more than €100 billion and employs up to 1.5 million people. In Germany alone, the waste-disposal industry provides work for over 240,000 employees and creates turnover of about €37 billion. Around half of this is generated by the 900 or so companies belonging to the Federal Association of the German Waste Disposal Industry (BDE, Berlin), who is the organiser of Entsorga-Enteco 2006. Together, they are responsible for disposing around 60 per cent of all household waste in Germany as well as 85 per cent of all industrial waste and 95 per cent of all hazardous waste.

In Germany, there are over 50 producers of plant and machinery for waste treatment and recycling, most of them small and medium-sized companies. According to the German Engineering Federation (VDMA, Frankfurt) — the conceptual sponsor of the Entsorga-Enteco 2006 — they post about €1.3 billion in annual turnover. More than two-thirds of this sum is now generated abroad, especially in Eastern Europe and Asia.

Their combined technical and logistical know-how in the fields of recycling and waste disposal will be on show at Entsorga-Enteco 2006 — International Trade Fair for Waste Management and Environmental Technology at the Cologne exhibition centre from 24th to 27th October 2006.

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