The circular economy – valuable raw materials from recycled products

Climate change, urbanisation, and scarcity of natural resources are phenomena of our time that also shape societies across Europe. These phenomena encourage us to boost the recycling of waste and the use of biomass, for example. The use of recycled materials reduces the need for virgin raw materials and thus saves natural resources.

There is a lot of talks these days about the circular economy, but what does it really mean? In essence, circularity is about eliminating the creation of waste. Utilising existing materials and products efficiently by recycling and reusing is part of the circular economy.

In many countries across Europe, waste management functions reliably, and the sorting and separate collection of waste fractions is part of everyday life. For instance, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands and Germany have already reached the 2030 European Union target of recycling 70 per cent of packaging waste.

Across the EU, about a quarter of municipal waste ends up in landfills, which is still quite far from the 10% target in 2035. However, countries such as Belgium, Germany, Finland and Sweden, among others, have succeeded in reducing the share of landfill disposal to less than three per cent of all municipal waste. In these countries, the waste that cannot be recycled or reused is recovered almost completely for waste-to-energy production. This also has the benefit of reducing the use of fossil fuels in electricity and heat production.

While many European countries are already at a good level when it comes to sorting and recycling materials, there is still work to be done particularly in the smart use of materials and in increasing the use of recycled materials.

Of the waste received in 2019, 1590 kilotonnes were non-hazardous waste and 620 kilotonnes were hazardous waste. Of this waste, 820 kilotonnes (ashes, metals, plastics and others) were separated for recovery. 1440 kilotonnes of waste were recovered as energy. 410 kilotonnes of the waste ended up in final disposal.

Thinking about your own choices and actions is a key component in the circular economy, and consumers have a significant role in the big picture. Everybody must have the opportunity to recycle and to understand what happens to raw materials after they have been put in the recycle bin. When recycling and sorting waste, you also start thinking about your own buying habits and consumption. Do I really need to buy this, or can I buy it used? Is there a similar product that is made from recycled materials?

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How is plastic recycled?
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Of all the plastic produced in the world, about 40 per cent is used to make packaging. Plastic is a good packaging material when it is used and recycled responsibly. Tackling the problems related to plastic recycling did not start in earnest until recent years – globally and also at the European level: just 20 per cent of the world’s packaging plastic is recycled, and in Europe 7.2 million tonnes of household plastic ends up in landfills (Source: European Parliament: The environmental impacts of plastics and micro-plastics use, waste and pollution: EU and national measures). Therefore, the European Union has set a target to recycle 55 per cent of plastic packaging by 2030.

In Finland, separately collected post-consumer plastic waste is recycled and used to produce Fortum Circo® recycled plastic granules, a secondary raw material suitable for a variety of new plastic products. This is how recycled plastic packaging can get a new life in the form of various products.

In fact, product manufacturers and the retail sector have work to do in developing plastic packaging products that are suitable for recycling and considering what kinds of products made from recycled plastic could be offered to consumers. When we see that new, useful products are being made from recycled plastic, recycling becomes more attractive.

A good example of a functional recycling system for plastic packaging is the way that bottle recycling works in many European countries. For instance, Denmark, Finland and Germany rank at the top in Europe in the recycling of plastic bottles. Some 60% of the plastic bottles in Europe are returned, and the recycled material they generate is used to manufacture new bottles and other products. Plastic bottle recycling is a collaborative effort on the part of producers and importers of beverages, stores, transportation companies, the return system administrators, the consumers returning their bottles, and industry utilising the recycled material.

Electric vehicles are coming – what happens to used batteries?
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The electrifying society relies on lithium batteries and the development of battery technology. Lithium-ion batteries contain valuable metals, such as lithium, cobalt, manganese and nickel, the availability of which is scarce and the demand growing.

Over time, battery performance weakens, and batteries might not be used for their original intended purpose, e.g. in electric vehicles. However, batteries can be reused at solar power plants, for example, for storing energy at times when the sun is not shining.

At the end of a battery’s lifecycle, the materials contained in the battery are recovered and recycled. The recycled raw material is used to produce new batteries, which reduces an environmental load of battery production. With innovative technologies, we can now recycle more than 80% of lithium-ion battery materials, which can be reused to produce new EV batteries.

What is bioeconomy?
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The bioeconomy has an important role in our journey towards a carbon-neutral society. The bioeconomy is based on the sustainable use of renewable natural resources and bio-based materials, which, together with the circular economy and clean energy production, help in combating climate change.

At the moment, we squander tremendous amounts of biomasses globally. For example, in the Delhi region of India, 50 million tonnes of paddy straw and other agricultural waste is burnt annually. Refining just this amount into textile fibre could replace over half of the global cotton production. The production of cotton consumes an unsustainable amount of water and pesticides.

Fortum’s Bio2X programme aims to produce valuable end products from grass-based masses, in particular straw, end products that can be used to replace fossil-based and other environmentally taxing raw materials. Raw materials derived from biomass can be used in textiles, pharmaceutical applications, food, cosmetics, plastics, the construction industry, asphalt, and even as a raw material for batteries.

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