Plastic power

C&I Issue 6, 2008

New EU legislation, in the form of the waste framework directive (WFD), is aiming to tighten up rules on waste management to ensure that there is more prevention of waste. A major difference that has emerged between the plastics industry and politicians is that the MEPs want to give absolute priority to recycling. The plastics sector, on the other hand, is looking for a balance between recycling and energy recovery. This would mean that as much as possible of the waste that cannot be mechanically recycled is turned into energy or even into polymer feedstocks.

The legislation is due to be finally approved later this year by the Council of Ministers, representing the governments of the EU’s 27 member states, and the European Parliament. The council has already reached agreement on a common position on the content of the directive. Parliament is scheduled to vote on the legislation in a second reading by the end of June.

The directive aims to clarify and define what is waste, recycling, recovery and disposal. It attempts to make a clear distinction between recovery and disposal. As a result, the use of landfill, which is regarded as excluding any attempt at recovery, will become a last resort.

‘The objective of the directive is to create the highest value out of waste but how that highest value will be achieved can be a difficult question to resolve,’ says Harald Kaeb, managing director of the European Bioplastics Association, Berlin.

The plastics industry reckons that high levels of recovery of waste can be reached by exploiting the energy content of plastics. In 2006, nearly 20% of plastics was recycled into other products or materials while 30% or 7.4m t was recovered as energy, according to PlasticsEurope, the industry body representing polymer producers. This 30% of plastics is theoretically capable of generating nine gigawatts of energy, PlasticsEurope says. This is the equivalent of nine large power stations working at 100% efficiency with cogenerated power and steam.

Energy recovery is seen by the plastics industry, as well as by much of the waste management sector, as crucial to finding environmentally positive ways of dealing with unrecycled mixed municipal solid waste. Currently less than 40% of EU municipal waste is recycled, while nearly half is landfilled and less than a fifth is recovered for energy through incineration.

‘Plastics have a high calorific value close to that of gasoline or diesel and much higher than coal or wood,’ explains Jan-Erik Johansson, PlasticsEurope’s regional director for North Europe. ‘Plastics accounting for 10% by weight of a mixed waste stream can make up 30% of its calorific value.’

If amounts of waste going into landfill are to be drastically reduced — which is one aim of the directive — energy recovery appears to be the obvious major alternative. In the longer term, the plastics industry would like the use of gasification and/or pyrolysis processes so that mixed wastes with a plastics content can be turned into chemical feedstocks for manufacturing polymers and other products, or into electricity or fuels.

Gasification transforms the waste into syngas, comprising carbon monoxide and hydrogen, from which methanol can be made as a base feedstock.
  ‘Gasification will offer another route besides incineration in energy recovery,’ says Aafko Schanssema, a consumer and environmental affairs specialist at PlasticsEurope. ‘This form of waste management will fit into the new infrastructure of biorefineries and other facilities which will be established in Europe to provide new low-carbon sources of energy and raw materials from biomass and other wastes.’

In its common position on the waste framework directive, the council backed the use of gasification and pyrolysis. It decided, however, that incineration would only be categorised as an approved energy recovery method if the incinerator is used for both the generation of electricity and heat with an energy efficiency of at least 60%.

‘This efficiency standard is not linked to the energy content of the waste or the amount of plastic in it,’ says Schanssema. ‘The determining factor is the combination of heat and power. This suits countries like Denmark where there are a lot of district heating systems linked to incinerators producing both steam and power. But it is not much benefit in countries like Italy, which does not have an infrastructure for heat and power facilities.’

Some MEPs want even stricter controls on the use of incineration in the belief that as much recycling as possible should be encouraged. In particular, they wish to deter companies from avoiding recycling by resorting directly to energy recovery. ‘There are some MEP colleagues who are opposed fundamentally to the idea of energy from waste plants and who will never vote for them in any shape or form,’ says Caroline Jackson, a UK Conservative MEP and rapporteur on the directive for the Parliament’s environment committee.

In addition to the greater emphasis on recycling, MEPs want the legislation to include targets so that EU countries are under pressure to raise their levels of waste prevention, re-use of products or components and of recycling. In its common position the council ignored targets, even though Parliament had given high priority to their adoption in its first reading. ‘It would be wrong to miss the opportunity to ensure that this directive does more than supply a set of definitions,’ says Jackson.

She is proposing that by 2012 member states should stabilise their output of waste at 2009 levels even though municipal waste has been growing by an average of 2%/year since the mid-1990s. By 2020 the amount of household waste re-used or recycled in the EU should also be increased to a minimum 50%.

MEPs want close adherence to a five-stage waste management hierarchy set out in the directive. This starts with prevention of waste, then re-use, followed by recycling, after which comes recovery, including energy recovery, and finally disposal, such as landfill.

The council agreed that departure from the hierarchy may be ‘necessary for specific waste streams when justified for reasons of, inter alia, technical feasibility, economic viability and environmental protection.’

This variable approach would appear to allow bioplastics waste, which, because of its low quantities, is being excluded from mechanical recycling processes or even in some cases composting operations, to bypass the hierarchy. ‘Until we have higher volumes of bioplastics in the marketplace, the best option is for bioplastic waste to go straight to the energy recovery stage,’ says Kaeb.

In response to the desire of some MEPs for a mandatory hierarchy, Jackson is proposing that only after ‘consultation and involvement of citizens and stakeholders’ can divergence from the five-stage system take place. ‘The directive must make clear that departures from the hierarchy cannot take place casually and must be done as part of an ordered process.’

However, PlasticsEurope claims that such a ‘bureaucratic’ approach will hamper the development of new processes such as gasification, in which there will be a need to switch between energy and feedstock recovery. ‘There are a lot innovations taking place with technologies which can make waste management of plastics more efficient,’ says Schanssema. ‘The legislation should be phrased in such a way as to allow the development of the innovations of the future.’

Jackson’s task is to find a compromise between what Parliament and the council wants. In return for the support of the council for its recycling target, Parliament may soften its stance on the hierarchy, which will give the plastic industry more of the flexibility it desires.

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