By 2050, 9.7 billion people will live on this planet. That means more consumption and therefore more production. But as a result, the climate and the natural resources will be even more under pressure. Some suggest that a circular economy offers a way out, but what does that mean? The Compost Bag Company explains it clearly.

Recycling is the solution! Right?

In a circular economy nothing is lost and everything is reused. Recycling, mechanical material recycling to be more precise, plays an important role. The principle is that waste is sorted by material type and then transformed into a shape that can be used to create new objects again.

Is mechanical material recycling really the panacea? Well, not entirely. On the one hand there is the problem of contamination and, on the other hand there is material deterioration.

Even though we do not score so bad for source separation of waste, there is still too much contamination in the material flows. It is virtually impossible to completely extract this in an economically viable way and thus, it ends up in the final recyclate. This pollution reduces the quality of the recyclate, so that it can no longer be reused in high-value applications. Think, for example, of food safety. That is unfortunate, because it stands in the way of pure circularity.

The problem of damage to the material itself is even more dramatic: any material can only be mechanically recycled for a limited number of times. And every time the quality of the material deteriorates. This is the result of damage to the fibers or to the molecules in the material as a result of the mechanical processing. This also stands in the way of complete circularity.

What to do then ?

Until recently, contaminated waste was simply not recycled in Europe, but shipped out to China. But since the end of 2017, China – rightly – has closed its borders for this mess. The most common solution now is shipping it to other third-world countries, or, if that is too delicate, burning it with energy recovery. The heat from the incinerator is used to produce electricity or to feed a heating network. Clever, isn’t it ? Well, as a result the materials are irrevocably lost and that is just the opposite of the intentions of circular economy’s.

The petrochemical industry has plans for chemical material recycling. In contrast to mechanical material recycling, the waste is then broken down to the basic chemical building blocks via pyrolysis. The method allows for obtaining very pure chemicals. Only … pyrolysis literally eats energy like hell. And that makes this kind of recycling extremely expensive.

Gradually, another form of recycling has been breaking through: organic recycling. That is what happens in a composting plant. Compostable waste (organic waste, food scraps from e.g. kitchens and catering, animal manure, CompostBag® products …) are broken down and digested by micro-organisms and transformed into compost. Compost is a soil improver and brings carbon into the soil. Carbon is what plants require to build their structures (stems, leaves, flowers, seeds, …) in a healthy way. Biorefinery is used to extract basic chemical building blocks from plants, which can be used to re-create materials that can be transformed into objects. Admittedly, it is a longer way, but the cycle is closed in this way as well. And it takes little effort. Nature does most of the work.

Ecodesign is the key

Wait a moment! Can you just throw everything with the organic waste? No, certainly not! Because a large part of today’s household waste is not compostable at all. The result would only be that the compost is so contaminated that it can no longer be used, e.g. as a result of microplastics. On the other hand, this would be an elegant solution for overly contaminated waste, especially if the contamination is organic in nature. Think of all kinds of food packaging, where food remains are left behind when you empty them.

The solution lies in ecodesign: preparing for the end-of-life solution right from the conception of the object. Food packaging must be made compostable so that it can be recycled organically with food leftovers.

Today, compost companies are very hesitant about the idea, because they are terrified of non-compostable items ending up in their composting systems. For example, there are compostable alternatives for the traditional plastic fruit & vegetable bags in the supermarket, but as long as there are also still others from traditional plastic, the compost companies hold the boat. They fear that the consumer can not make the distinction. However, there are clear marks and logos indicating certified compostability of an item. That’s where an important role for government lies in bringing these marks and logos to the public’s attention.

And, of course, it is a mission for us all to sort correctly and prevent contamination. Just to be sure, ask your local authority what to do best.