Mar 21, 2018 Recycling blog

From worthless waste to valuable raw material

Uffe Hansen
Uffe Hansen
President, Recycling
Have you ever heard of the Chinese city of Shenzhen? It is one of those eastern mega-metropolises you do not see in the blockbuster movies, read about in the travel listings or consider extraordinary in any way. It might have caught your eye in the news as domicile of the stock exchange, or you may have noticed it on a map linking Hong Kong to the mainland. Shenzhen, however, has been one of the hot topics in waste recycling recently.
World’s municipal waste will double in less than 10 years

Shenzhen is an almost uncontrollably growing metropolis that must constantly react to unexpected changes so that it doesn’t drift into chaos. One of the many interesting decisions the city has taken – and the reason why Shenzhen is the talking point in the waste business –  is that it will build the world’s largest waste-to-energy plant. Within a few years, one third of the waste generated by the city’s 20 million inhabitants will be turned into energy in one single facility.

World’s municipal waste will double in less than 10 years

We produce a mind-boggling 1.3 billion tonnes of municipal solid waste globally every year, and, due to population growth, urbanization and a growing middle class, the global volumes are expected to double by 2025. More and more people are striving to improve their standard of living while the natural resources used in manufacturing goods and products are being depleted. Under these circumstances it is understandable that the environmental agenda as well as the buzzwords reducing, reusing and recycling have become top priorities in forward-looking societies.  

During the last couple of decades, we have witnessed a natural progression in many countries. Uncontrolled dumping and landfilling are not considered sustainable solutions to solving the waste problem. Recycling and utilizing waste as an energy source, on the other hand, extends the life cycle of products and cuts down emissions. 

Europe paved the way, Asian countries are catching up

For a long time, waste was the end-point of the product’s life cycle. We made every effort to get it out of sight. Later, Western and Northern Europe took the lead in trying to utilize waste instead of just discarding it. More recently, countries in Asia Pacific and North America have had a bash as well. They invest heavily in green technology in order to enable economic growth without jeopardizing the environment.

China, for one, is picking up fast and moving away from landfilling – especially in metropolises and other densely populated areas. We see state-of-the-art waste-to-energy plants with world-record capacities shooting up at tremendous speed. Other Asian countries, like Japan and Korea, also support the waste-to-energy trend and incinerate 77% and 24% of their waste, respectively.

Waste-to-energy technology has come a long way since the 70s, and today modern facilities are considered greenhouse gas-neutral – taking into account the fossil fuel CO2 avoidance, energy credits from increased metals recovery for recycling during the segregation process, and, most importantly, avoided landfill methane emissions. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, approximately one ton of CO2 emissions is avoided for every ton of municipal solid waste combusted.

Development happens gradually

In the long run, the progression of waste recycling has been a tediously time-consuming process. For years we lulled ourselves into thinking that we could avoid ecological problems during our lifetime. Societies ignored the full exploitation of materials and saw waste as worthless remains.

Environmental awareness and the depletion of natural resources have revolutionized our mindset. Now the opportunities for reusing and recycling are taken into consideration already when designing products, and the word circular economy is moving gradually from speeches to practical policies. Nevertheless, despite the positive developments around the world, there still remains much to be done.

The good news, however, is that if a Chinese metropolis like Shenzhen, overwhelmed by uncontrolled population growth, can take a leap in just a few years, development will be inevitable everywhere.