Going Dutch on waste

It is ironic that a week after Europe’s first commercial scale municipal waste to chemicals and biofuels plant was announced, the EU decides on ambitious targets to recycle waste plastics, textiles, paper and biowaste, the very feedstock it will depend on.  The 360,000 tonnes plant in Rotterdam will be a partnership between Enerkem, the Port of Rotterdam, AkzoNobel and Air Liquide.  It will use Enerkem’s technology, which has already been demonstrated at scale in Canada, to make methanol from waste. Methanol can be blended into petrol and is also a building block chemical for the petrochemicals industry. Enerkem indicates the plant will convert ‘non-recyclable’ waste, but this is rather a throwaway statement. It would be better to assert that turning waste into chemicals like methanol is actually a type of recycling - chemical recycling.

Not all waste is created equal in Europe. Biobased waste like agricultural, forestry, food and garden waste can be converted to biofuel, which attracts extra incentives. It makes financial sense for the Enerkem biomethanol, produced from any of these sources, to go for fuel applications, leaving the fossil methanol from the plastics or synthetic fibres for chemical methanol. 

Then there is the scale; technology like this needs more than leftovers to be economic. The Dutch produce on average 600kg per capita of waste each year, of which over 50% is already mechanically recycled. Rotterdam has a population of about 630,000, which means around 190,000 tonnes of non-recycled waste from the local population will be available for the 360,000 tonne plant. Of course Rotterdam is a port and an industrial centre, so it will produce more waste than average, but with recycling targets increasing to 65% by 2035, there is downward pressure on waste availability for processes like this. So it is important to acknowledge that technology like Enerkem’s can offer a different type of recycling. 

There will always be some waste that cannot be mechanically recycled. Plastics degrade with each recycling step and have to be disposed of after a few cycles when chemical reycling makes sense.  Sorting of plastic is expensive, so there is a point when the volumes of waste plastic in a specific location do not warrant the investment. Another thing about waste; it is uneconomic to transport it long distances between facilities with different sorting and recycling options, so local solutions work best. 

There has been little debate on the economics and definition of ‘recycling’. Towns, cities and regions need to assess their waste flows to see what combination of mechanical and chemical recycling is the best for them. For large population centres, choosing chemical recycling may not be double dutch at all. 

Published: 1 March 18

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