Dr. Stephen Wise, Chief Strategic Development Officer at Advetec and SRC 2023 speaker, explores the role of technology in giving value to the unrecyclable and how SRF can contribute to the circular economy.
For decades, unrecyclable waste has been considered at the end of its useful life and destined for landfill or incineration. However, this rubbish is a valuable resource with vast untapped potential – it’s just in the wrong place.
With the right technology and an open mind to change, unrecyclable waste can create an alternative to carbon-heavy fossil fuels. There’s never been a better time to explore how it can become a commodity and contribute to the circular economy.
Closing the circle on waste
Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) estimates that the UK generates approximately 40 million tonnes of commercial and industrial (C&I) waste each year. Of the 29 million tonnes of plastic waste collected in the EU in 2018 – less than a third was recycled. That means almost 20 million tonnes went to landfill or for incineration.
This is due to a lack of recycling infrastructure and the fact that not all waste can be recycled due to the presence of organic matter, such as a jar that still contains pasta sauce. We call this forgotten waste because waste handlers, recyclers, and consumers typically overlook it.
It’s a race against the clock for nations to embed circularity into their economies – especially as the UK’s 2050 net zero target and plans to halve the waste sent to landfill or incineration by 2042 loom. Plus, with pending changes to the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) set to send EfW gate prices soaring, there is no time to delay. Waste handlers can be at the vanguard of sustainability by unlocking the value of this forgotten, unrecyclable waste and closing the circle.
Increasing the value of waste
To be fully circular, waste would not be produced in the first place, with products and materials kept in circulation through processes such as reuse, repair, remanufacture and recycling, so fewer new resources are needed.
This would transform our world by delivering significant environmental, economic and social benefits. It should, of course, be the ultimate aim, but it won’t happen overnight. We must do what we can now to reduce carbon emissions and make incremental positive changes on the road to a 100% circular model.
A key strategy is to move unrecyclable waste up the thermal hierarchy. Its value is not realised when unrecyclable waste is merely incinerated or buried. This is the very embodiment of the linear economy ethos of ‘take-make-waste’. However, as more value is extracted from waste, it moves up the hierarchy and edges closer to a fully circular model.
Creating Solid Recovered Fuel
One way to achieve this is by creating Solid Recovered Fuel (SRF). When unrecyclable waste is sent for incineration with heat or power offtake, it becomes a Refuse Derived Fuel (RDF). Some value has been extracted, but when that waste is refined further with biotechnology, it moves up the thermal hierarchy to become an SRF – with the ability to replace primary fossil fuels in heavy industries such as cement.
When waste is treated so that it can be mined for valuable chemicals and recycled back into new products, its thermal value peaks and the once-forgotten waste has become fully circular – extracting more value and contributing to the circular economy.
Turning unrecyclable waste into SRF puts the 4 Rs of waste management – reduce, reuse, recycle and recover – into action. Moreover, when unrecyclable waste is turned into SRF, its proportion of biogenic carbon increases. A higher proportion of biogenic carbon lowers the ratio of harmful CO2 emitted when the fuel is used and reduces the cost of disposal, as it doesn’t fall under existing emissions taxes and ETS.
The value of SRF
SRF derived from unrecyclable waste comprises Mixed Residual Waste that is shredded and dehydrated to produce a dry, homogenous material called “floc”. The quality of the SRF produced depends primarily on the composition of the processed waste, but SRF derived from unrecyclable waste has many uses and can feed into the circular economy in several ways:
Its constituent parts can be segregated further, such as removing the plastics and sending them for recycling. This plastic is suitable for recycling because it is now clean.
It can be used for gasification – often considered the most environmentally friendly method for converting waste into energy – also saving over 90% CO2e.
Further developments are in the pipeline with projects to turn waste into hydrogen to power cars and planes – something that is only possible with waste pre-treated to SRF standard.
As such, SRF’s potential to reduce the need for landfill and decarbonise heavy industry is increasingly being recognised and demand is growing. The global market is projected to grow to $6.00 billion by 2029 (from $4.75 billion in 2022).
Technology aiding sustainability
Advetec’s unique biotechnology empowers waste management organisations to aid sustainability, contribute to the circular economy, and improve their clients’ Scope 3 emissions.
By using unique blends of bacteria inside enclosed aerobic digestors, Advetec enables waste handlers to:
- Reduce the mass of customers’ contaminated waste by 50%.
- Divert 100% from landfill or incineration.
- Cut overall associated GHG emissions by over 70%.
- Stabilise waste to ensure it meets AT4 compliance/standards.
- Move waste up the thermal hierarchy – contributing to the circular economy.
- Create a consistent, high-quality floc that meets SRF offtakes requirements so that unrecyclable waste can be turned into a fossil fuel replacement.
- Produce high-quality SRF without building expensive infrastructure.
- Increase the speed of decarbonisation of local businesses and even the most remote communities.
You can learn more about technology’s role in giving value to the unrecyclable and how SRF is made in Advetec’s latest whitepaper, launching online this month. Follow Advetec on social media or email J.firstname.lastname@example.org to receive your copy.
For more information, visit www.advetec.com or Advetec’s stand at SRC 2023.
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