Thomas Thorin, from sustainable systems change agency Metabolic, looks at circular economy opportunities in waste streams in a case study based on a Denmark waste analysis.
Waste management isn’t what it used to be. The world has woken up to the fact that the materials we have traditionally labelled as ‘waste’, can instead be highly valuable resources – if we are smart about how we manage them. The principles underpinning this shift are commonly known as the circular economy.
At Metabolic, we spend lots of time crunching data to understand why waste systems function the way that they do, and how we can help cities and regions implement systemic interventions that will drive circularity in the long run, without causing unintended problems elsewhere.
In a recent analysis for the Capital Region of Denmark, we unpacked four key hotspots for circular waste management.
Hotspot 1: Not all recycling is created equal
Our analysis showed that the Capital Region of Denmark recycles 63% of its materials. But what does that really mean? The term ‘recycling’ can mean different things, depending on the material in question and the technologies available to process it.
In a circular economy, materials should be recycled at the highest possible value — in other words, when creating a new product from recycled material, we should strive to keep the value as close as possible to the value of equivalent virgin material. By doing this, we are likely to be able to keep the material cycling for longer.
Many of the products we recycle today are essentially downcycled, which means that the newly produced items have a much lower value than the equivalent virgin material.
For instance, quality writing paper might be recycled into cheap paper towels, which are in turn recycled into even lower-value packing materials, and so on, until it is no longer of sufficient quality or value to recycle at all.
As we speed up the transition to the circular economy, there is a need to challenge the existing labeling of waste processing. Confronted with a scarcity of some materials and an overabundance of waste, we must strive to recycle more effectively by replacing downcycling with upcycling. Doing so means differentiating in a more nuanced way between different levels of cycling.
In a well-functioning circular economy, we envision equipping all waste processing methods — or even all waste plants — with a calculated circularity score. A low score would describe a process where the material’s value is completely lost, such as landfilling. A high score would represent a fully circular process where every kilogram of processed waste is as good as virgin raw material. Steel recycling is one of the best examples of this. The properties of steel allow it to be recycled continually with no degradation in performance, and from one product to another. Steel would therefore have a ‘high’ circularity score.
The European Commission is already moving in the right direction with a proposed Circular Economy Action Plan that requires all municipalities to report actual recycled amounts instead of just reporting the amount that is sorted, as is the current practice. This will tell us how much is coming out of the recycling plants but we still don’t have a proper way to differentiate between the quality of the recyclates.
An easy top-down approach to estimate the quality of recyclates – and therefore their respective circularity scores – would be to track market prices of different recyclates and compare them to equivalent virgin materials. This would provide a figure for how the market perceives the quality of the recyclates.
A bottom-up approach would be to assess all the different types of recycling processes that are available for all the different waste materials and score each possible combination. This would give a more empirical result but it would have to be reassessed regularly to keep the scores up to date as new technologies arrive.
Hotspot 2: Blind spots in the service and retail waste streams
89.4% of the workforce in the Capital Region of Denmark are employed in the service, retail or similar tertiary sectors. These sectors account for 150 000 tonnes of mixed waste that is currently being incinerated. However, the waste management for businesses is privatized, and therefore not subject to the municipal waste collection system. This results in a black-box effect where lack of transparency for these sectors leads to a reduced understanding of this waste stream and less potential for improvement. These small businesses might individually wish to arrange proper sorting and recycling, but at such small scales this can be financially challenging. As a result, this waste is not adequately sorted for recycling and most of it gets incinerated.
In Amsterdam, municipal waste collection has been a challenge for the small tight streets of “de 9 Straatjes”. The solution was a pilot project to collect household and business waste together. All waste is then collected by the municipal waste authority, which reduces the traffic of waste trucks in the narrow streets of the city centre, generates savings for the business owners and aligns the waste solution in the whole area.
The large workforce in these sectors also provides an opportunity to incentivise recycling practices. As individuals, everyone is already encouraged to sort and recycle their household waste. However, this is undermined by a potential inability to recycle waste from the work space. If 89.4% of the workforce (or the equivalent in other countries) can be encouraged to also sort and recycle business waste, then the same recycling behaviour can permeate multiple facets of our working and home life, which should reinforce behavioral change.
Hotspot 3: Waste data as a leverage point
Denmark has a centralised data system for recording all waste streams, and although its accuracy is sometimes called into question, the presence of a complete, unified data system puts Denmark in a uniquely advantageous situation compared to most other countries in the world.
Despite the database being exceptional in an international context, it is yet to be made accessible to companies and local governments in a clear and user-friendly way. Data visualization can be a powerful tool to drive sustainable change. Making the existing data available and readable in real time would allow local governments and businesses to see for themselves just how much valuable material they are wasting. It could also facilitate collaboration and highlight potential solutions.
There are many business advantages to such a platform. A well-designed database would allow companies and municipalities to see how much potential value is in their waste streams. The platform could even automatically highlight valuable materials in a business’ waste that they could then potentially get money for. It would also be possible to look for other companies in the area that have similar waste streams, to pool together for easier and cheaper waste management and waste collection. The biggest potential gain would be when a company could use local waste as an input, for example unsold bread from local bakeries could be turned into beer at a local brewery, or used office coffee grounds to feed mushrooms.
The Dutch initiative Afval Monitor is an example of a digital platform which uses and shares waste data in an accessible way. Organizations can access open data on municipal waste streams, to better understand waste on a municipal, regional or national level. This is a great example of sharing and visualizing waste data. Denmark’s centralised data system would allow the country to go even further, showing more detail and highlighting more opportunities for creative reuse of waste.
Hotspot 4: Challenging lock-ins
The Danish waste system has been structured in roughly the same way since the 1980s, with the goal to make landfill as unattractive as possible. Over this period, the Danes have become global leaders in efficient waste incineration, and their systems have been exported across the world.
With the emergence of the circular economy, however, the rationale behind waste incineration has been called into question. Burning resources recaptures a very small percentage of the energy needed to make these resources. Recycling or upcycling, on the other hand, decreases the need for new virgin materials and conserves the energy, time and labour which went into making these products.
Fortunately, clear targets have been set to increase recycling rates. But the current incineration plants were expensive to build, and require large amounts of waste to maintain operational efficiency. The institutional and political momentum which has gone into these large incinerators creates a degree of “lock-in”. Adding to this is the fact that waste is one of the cheapest sources of heating in Denmark’s capital district, providing 25 percent of all district heating in the country. The plants have become so efficient that, with the current waste collection system, almost no recycling processes can compete in terms of value per tonne of waste.
The Danish Island of Bornholm, named the most sustainable island in the EU in 2020, is attempting to break this lock-in. They have made a political commitment to stop incineration completely by 2032, forcing themselves to find solutions. This may spur a sea change across the national waste system.
As a nation, however, there will likely always be some need for incineration, as not every product or material can be recycled. An ideal balance to strike is one where we recycle as much as possible, and incinerate only what cannot be recycled. One way to achieve this is through taxing incineration more highly than recycling, which is how Denmark successfully achieved one of Europe’s lowest landfilling rates in the 1980s.
Due to Denmark’s high incineration capacity, a drastic decrease in waste for incineration will result in demand for waste imports, or the closing of functioning plants. One way to tackle this in the short-to-medium term would be to temporarily import waste from neighbouring countries until the end of the major plants’ life cycles, reducing landfilling rates in other parts of Europe. An important caveat though: to avoid shifting the burden and creating a new problem, it is crucial that all imported waste sent to the incinerator could not otherwise have been recycled.
The future of waste management
In the same way that our fossil-fuel based energy economy is in need of an overhaul, so too are our waste systems. And if we are to move towards a truly circular economy, cities and regions will need to challenge the lock-in mechanisms that define our current waste systems.
To change the system, we must change its goals. Current recycling goals encourage a blanket proportion of all materials to be recycled, for example 40%. Future recycling targets should be more nuanced, taking into account the type of material being recycled, the amount of value being conserved, the recovery rate of the material from the waste stream, and the environmental impact of virgin materials. Giving recycling a circularity score relative to how valuable it is for society to recycle materials can make decisions more nuanced and context-specific.
At the same time, policymakers need the tools to make meaningful decisions and spot the most valuable leverage points. As we see with the island of Bornholm, communities can also drive meaningful change to systems, and help inspire the broader national or EU-wide legislation. Commitment at all levels is necessary, in order to make the transition to a truly circular waste management system.