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Waste Innovation – We need EU Solutions

Submitted by on 09 Mar 2012 – 11:33

By Christian Fischer, Chief Consultant, Copenhagen Resource Institute

It is only 15 years since the EU started the political process to introduce obligatory recycling levels and limits for landfilling. In the intervening time, EU Member States have succeeded in changing waste management; waste is increasingly regarded as a resource and not just something to get rid of and we now recycle more of our waste. There is still a long way to go, but we have started to move the tanker.

Increasing recycling and improving sustainable material management is a top priority within EU. Better waste management is not only important from an environmental and resource point of view, it also creates jobs, contributes to a greener economy, and can provide Europe with a secure supply of critical raw materials.

The EU’s Roadmap to Resource Efficiency describes as an ambition that “waste is fully managed as a resource by 2020”. This requires many different initiatives, including the full implementation of EU legislation and targets. Full implementation can, in the main, be based on existing technologies and systems, but for certain waste types, systems and behaviours, further innovation is required. Many of these challenges are common among the EU countries. There is no reason for each country to reinvent the wheel – instead we need European solutions to tackle these problems. Based on research undertaken by Copenhagen Resource Institute I will mention some examples:

  • Composite waste from windmills

Windmills are marketed as green and sustainable products for the production of renewable energy. In some EU countries wind power is already an important part of the energy supply and in the future it is expected to play an even larger role. However, the currently employed end-of-life treatment of windmills is far from sustainable: the majority of composite (glass fibre) parts are landfilled and as a result the resources in the waste are lost forever. In order to fulfil the claim that windmills are a sustainable product, the end of life treatment needs to be improved. This calls for new technology that can properly process and recycle end-of-life windmills (the life expectancy of a wind turbine is 20-30 years).

  • Improved recycling of Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE)

It is primarily the more common metals in WEEE such as iron, copper, aluminium, that are currently recycled. However WEEE also contains other rare or critical metals, which are characterised by a dissipative use – that is to say they are used in small amounts in a multitude of application areas or products. These critical metals are not currently recycled in significant quantities. This is not only an environmental problem and a resource problem: limited availability of critical metals in the EU could hamper the production of new technologies by European industry in the future. Access to these materials is particularly important in, for example, sustainable energy technologies and information technology.

The existing recycling infrastructure of WEEE – the current form of collection and recycling techniques – has not yet focused on this problem, resulting in many of these metals being lost. The dismantling and pre-processing of discarded products in particular need to be greatly improved to enable the recovery of more material. Recycling of critical metals can play an important part in fulfilling strategic objectives in the EU on securing access to metals such as for example Coltan, Indium and Lithium.

  • Fly ashes and air pollution control residues from incineration

The incineration of waste generates fly ash and air pollution control residues (ACP). This waste is hazardous and no satisfactory solution has yet been developed for the recovery or permanent landfilling of this waste. Much of the waste is stored in German salt mines and on an island in the Oslo-fjord in Norway. However this is not a sustainable solution in the long run.

Methodologies to separate and stabilise/solidify the fly ash and the APC waste before landfilling have been developed but these have mainly been on a pilot scale with costs that are higher than those offered by underground storage in Norway and Germany. So far there have only been limited results in relation to a real recovery of fly ash and the APC. We need further innovation in this area.

  • Ashes from combustion of biomass

Biomass is increasingly being used for energy production in many European countries. The ash residues from the incineration process are to a large extent landfilled due to their content of heavy metals. However, the ashes also contain a high content of essential plant nutrients such as potassium and phosphorus. Phosphorus is a limited resource that needs to be recycled. The recovery of plant nutrients from ashes is an important element in rendering the use of biomass for energy a sustainable solution, and one that requires innovation.

In addition, in my own country, Denmark, intensive livestock production is leading to an over fertilization of soils with phosphorus. Other European countries with intensive livestock production are facing similar problems with phosphorous saturation. One solution to increase phosphorous recovery and reduce the amount going directly into the field is to separate manure. The fibre fraction of manure contains the main part of the phosphorus and incineration of the fibre fraction results in ashes with high phosphorus content. The phosphorus in the ashes can then be recovered and used in fertilisers.

  • Nano-waste

Use of nano-materials has increased over the last fifteen to twenty years. The potential problems from nano-waste represent a challenge to the established waste management system. Today it is unclear whether waste containing nano-materials should be considered and treated as normal waste, hazardous waste, waste for incineration and/or landfill or even as radioactive waste.

Recycling of waste is a long-term goal, but there is little knowledge whether recycling of materials containing nano-particles is feasible in the long run. A first step should be to focus on mapping of the generation of nano-waste and monitoring flows of nano-waste.


Eco-innovation to promote recycling and sustainable waste management can benefit from EU solutions. The above examples illustrate some of the technical challenges facing waste management systems across Europe. It is important that these challenges are addressed when the Commission presents the 7th Environmental Action Programme for the EU later this year and in the follow up to the Commission’s Eco-innovation Action Plan.