By Kjetil Vikingstad, CEO of Geminor.
In 2023 we are seeing the contours of a sustainable circularity of plastics, but we are still a long way from being on target with a well-functioning circular value chain. One of the biggest obstacles we face is getting upstream solutions to work optimally, i.e. being able to sort enough of the waste plastic suitable for recycling.
As of today, curbside and household sorting of plastics is not effective enough. Thus, the recycling rate is limited. Most of the sorted waste plastic in Norway is currently transported to Germany, where the recycling rate is still as low as 30 to 40 percent.
As for the authorities' target, the Norwegian Waste Regulation state that 50 per cent of the plastic that can be recycled, must be separated from residual waste by 2028. As much as 70 percent must be removed from the waste by 2035. The EU's requirements include that 50 percent of all plastic packaging must be materially recycled by 2025, increasing to 55 percent by 2030.
Centralized or decentralized sorting solutions
So how do we meet the new EU requirements?
In Norway, there is currently much focus on large-scale waste sorting facilities for residual household waste. Several Norwegian municipalities see the opportunity to collaborate on sorting, and reducing risk by investing in bigger, common facilities.
Still, these are often significant investments which include risk for many municipalities. It can be expensive to “make a wrong turn” in an unpredictable downstream market of plastic factions. In addition, these bigger facilities are not well adapted to regional and structural differences in the Norwegian market. Another factor is the complexity of larger collaborative projects where too many players are involved.
Collecting waste in larger centralized sorting facilities - where plastics and other recyclable fractions are separated - has its clear challenges. This is a significant investment and risk for most municipalities, which can be a challenge for some. It can be costly to "get it wrong" in a landscape with relatively little predictability on the downstream flow of separated fractions. Moreover, the large plants are not well adapted to the regional and structural differences in the Norwegian market.
An example is the upcoming, ReSource Danmark-owned fine sorting facility for plastic fractions in Esbjerg in Denmark: A large facility like this is designed for a high degree of sorting of plastic waste, and offers fractions to a network of material recycling players - both chemical and mechanical recycling.
There is also a method with untapped potential in the Nordic market, which can be nicely combined with a fine sorting facility. Simple, standardized and decentralized solutions for post-sorting of residual waste mean that more plastic can be sorted out beyond the sorting that source sorting provides, and at a lower cost than with a central sorting facility.
With this type of solution, the waste companies themselves can bring in machines for the sorting of plastic, and then send a mixed plastic fraction to specialized, large-scale plastic facilities where the plastic is separated into mono fractions suitable for selling to all types of recycling facilities. In this way, we can reduce heavy investments in large, general sorting facilities.
At the moment, large-scale facilities for the sorting of general waste are being planned in countries such as Norway. The big question is what these facilities eventually will cost the taxpayer. Decentralized sorting solutions for residual waste, combined with finer sorting facilities for plastic can in some areas be a more cost-effective and sustainable way to get plastic waste recycled. At the same time, this will reduce the risk of over-establishment. By implementing alternative solutions to the bigger, general facilities, the Scandinavian handling of plastic waste could become the most sustainable and cost-effective in Europe.