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Recycling and incineration surprises in the Netherland

The Netherlands is famous for having one of the highest rates of recycling of all material “waste” at 79 per cent in Europe. They are streets ahead of Australia in both the rate of recycling and rate of reprocessing back into product. With a ban on household and business waste (of 35 material streams) to landfill there are only two options: recycling or incineration.

So upon arrival in Amsterdam I expected to find a plethora of bins for recycling. But no. It was a major surprise to only find general waste bins in public areas. Nor could we find recycling bins cluttering the streets or in front of houses. In suburban streets we could only find strange tumbling units fixed to the ground of two or three per street block – again for general waste where people place general waste bags and they fall below ground and disappear.

So where was the recycling? Was it all done though dirty sorting of general waste? Where did the suburban tumbling bags go? All was a mystery.

Only through several meetings with experts and site visits did we uncover the real facts on recycling and waste in the Netherlands. In actual fact it is not so different to Australia except in some important aspects – more separation in the home for smaller bins, different funding models, more developed roles of governments, industry, cooperation and stronger targets. There are some important lessons and options for us, especially given China’s National Sword ban on receipt of unsorted recyclables.

Recycling in the home

People have roughly 3-4 bins per home for specific recyclables, and do not have a general waste bin. They have small separate wheelie bins for organics (food and garden), paper and cardboard, plastics and metals. These are collected monthly or fortnightly. Glass and textiles are dropped off at “Bringbanks” within walking distance of homes or near shopping centres. And what remains after separation in the home is not much. Residents carry their general waste bag out to the shared tumbling unit in their street. The cost for recycling and waste services (subsidised by brand owners packaging scheme) seems to average about €100 (AU$159) a year per property, which is less than in Victoria, which is about $350-400 a year.

In this way the Netherlands ensures they have high-quality collections of high-value material for ready reprocessing for new product.

As explained by Joris van der Meulen, who was responsible for setting up the collection and recycling scheme for household plastic packaging in the Netherlands and is now a consultant on recycling, like Australia thew Netherlands also experience problems of correct separation in the home, and people not bothering to carry material to the street.

Strategic priorities and no landfills for public use

The other amazing aspect of the Netherlands is that they have no landfills open to the public. As a highly distributed population of 17 million living in a small country of 41,543 square kilometres (less than a quarter of the space of Victoria), of which almost 50 per cent is below sea level, with high rainfall and water channels always within view, landfills are not an option. The decision was made to close landfills in the 1990s. They take up room, are a hazard for contamination of water and air, and are not popular with residents.

Only certain materials (about two per cent of total waste collected) such as asbestos are taken to the few remaining landfills. Approximately 79 per cent is recycled and 19 per cent is used in energy recovery. The government attribute its success to five elements:

  1. strong commitment to the waste hierarchy order of preference (avoid, reuse, recycle before incineration or landfill)
  2. stringent treatment standards
  3. planning on a national level
  4. holding producers responsible
  5. using various economic instruments to stimulate prevention and recycling

Incineration

Joris van der Meulen organised some excellent site tours; first was to AEB Amsterdam waste-to-energy (W2E) incinerator, one of 11 in the Netherlands. It is generating over one million megawatt-hours of electricity a year (enough for 250,000 homes) from 300,000 tonnes of waste, with total incineration capacity of 1,400,000 tonnes (currently running at ~21 per cent capacity). Trucks deliver the material from across the Amsterdam region (around 350,000 households) and also about 25 per cent imported from the UK. Gate fees are low at €70-75/tonne (<AU$119/tonne), hence the waste deliveries from the UK.

AEB has operated incinerators since 1917 for Amsterdam, with this W2E plant established at the Amsterdam Port in 1993. It is a fully owned business of the City of Amsterdam with 19 municipality partners. It is the largest W2E single location plant in the world and largest renewable energy plant in Amsterdam. The fourth generation of the plant was done in 2007 at a cost of around €450 million (AU$715m). AEB has invested in optimising emission scrubbers that filter and extract particulates, ensuring the plant operates inside the emission requirements set by the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency and public expectations.

The facility has the highest energy efficiency in the world at over 30 per cent, with most incinerators averaging 15 per cent and some as low as five per cent. AEB has teamed up with various partners in developing further efficiency plans: to extract more from the incoming material stream (in particular the plastics), the recovered particulate emissions and more heat for further district heating.

It shouldn’t be a first resort

Experts in the Netherlands advocate forAustralia to avoid building incinerators as the main treatment for household or commercial waste, however. They have found that incinerators become a disturbing factor competing with recyclers and inhibit recycling, industry development and a more circular economy.

Governments and the Australian public must therefore consider incinerators very carefully. What are their impacts upon our future directions, recycling industries, landfill fees, energy price and demand, subsidies and legal requirements for supply and offtake contracts? It is essential that policies, strategies and targets are thoroughly discussed and developed in Australia to inform investment decisions.

Prioritising recycling

The Netherlands government has long had incremental targets for recycling and supported producer responsibility schemes (as in Australia for tyres). Its targets have now lifted up another notch given its intent to improve economic performance, industries and jobs in pursuit of a more circular economy. The government also has a great desire to be a more economically and environmentally robust and sustainable economy, with lower greenhouse gas emissions. This is driving innovation, investment and smarter design, reprocessing and manufacturing, not only in the Netherlands but across the EU, where most of the collected material is sold.

This is driving change across industries, including at the AEB incinerator. AEB recently set up a new business venture, subsidised by the Netherlands Packaging Waste Fund and a 10-year supply agreement to extract plastics from the household packaging waste stream, diverting this from the incinerator for sale to plastics reprocessors. This will help meet the federally set targets on industry for plastic recycling, even though it will reduce the calorific value of their inwards feedstock (currently the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation does not subsidise collections or support such contracts).

The future of recycling

Later that same day we visited the large plastics sorting facility of family owned business Van Werven. It is a rare plastics recycler in the world and a sign of the future in recycling.

The company receives, sorts and reprocesses only rigid plastic – no packaging – and unusually they deal with all types of rigid plastic – including polyolefins, speciality plastics andvinyl. It accepts material not only from industry as scrap and collected finished products, but the difficult one of post-consumer, namely from council drop off facilities. This would be a new venture for Australia.

The company intentionally operates outside the realm of extended producer programs, subsidised programs and levies to minimise fluctuations in programs and ensure the business is robust for the long term. It has a strong business with three complimentary divisions using their capital plant and equipment: earthmoving equipment hire, organics treatment in composting and plastics recycling. As a privately owned family company, it is growing with plastics sorting facilities now operating in UK (2012), Belgium, North Ireland, Sweden and opening Poland in 2019.

It currently processes 120,000 tonnes a year, and anticipate reaching 200,000 tonnes by 2020, and has 20 major customers, with a handful of smaller ones receiving this material for substitute of virgin resin.

Managing director Ton van der Giessen is careful to establish consistent supply for identified customers. As in Australia with similar companies, in their quality assurance lab each batch of reprocessed plastic is tested before delivery to customers with a detailedmaterial safety data sheet produced showing the chemical composition and properties.

Van Werven is positioned to be a substitute supplier in place of virgin feedstock. It does not do compounding or colouring. It produces a consistent material for customers that do the compounding for different product formulations. Its plastics are used in the making of vacuum cleaners, containers, pipe, window frames and also in the automobile industry.

A major milestone for Europe was when van der Giessen successfully reached agreement with the European Commission to have recognition as the first plastics recycler in Europe with a “Green Deal”. This means that material leaving his site is not classified as “waste” but a “resource” for customers. This was achieved with vinyl plastic (PVC), and he plans to gain similar approvals for other polymers. This removes a major constraint of classifications of material, site registrations and onerous paperwork for manufacturers.

Van Werven is a successful and growing business with a good business model and van der Giessen sees the China ban as a bonus for plastics recycling, reprocessing and manufacturing in Europe that contributes to lower emissions (recycling plastics cuts emissions by 75 per cent). He fervently believes used plastics should be reprocessed locally, not exported as waste to be someone’s problem overseas.

Conclusion

In addition to these site visits I attended the second European Plastics Recycling Expo and Conference. With more than 400 attendees and 100 exhibitors, and two days of panel presentations, it was a success. The highlight was an interview with the passionate and persuasive Ton Emans, president of Plastics Recycling Europe.

He said plastics must be recycled, not let go to landfill or incineration. And while there would always be some residual that went to landfill or incineration, he said the European Commission Circular Economy Plastics Strategy had set strong targets that would lead to 25 per cent of virgin feedstock being replaced with recyclate by 2030.

“The future is full of challenges and opportunities but we are ready.”

Helen Millicer is principal at One Planet Consulting, a Churchill Fellow and graduate of the Australian Institute of Company Directors.

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