Mixed waste sorting key to meeting the EU’s Circular Economy objectives

Reloop and Zero Waste Europe have published a study by Eunomia which shows that applying sorting systems to mixed waste (MWS) before thermal treatment and landfilling can significantly support Europe's climate objectives and contribute to achieving ambitious plastics and municipal waste recycling targets.
Burkard Vogt, pixelio.de

The most important contribution of MWS would be the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions associated with waste, as it is an effective way of ensuring that energy-intensive materials are not lost to landfill and energy recovery, but can be recycled and displace the need for virgin materials.

The report “Mixed Waste Sorting to meet the EU’s Circular Economy Objectives” examined whether and to what extent EU recycling targets can be met by improving the recyclability of packaging and increasing separate collection of municipal waste – and if not, what measures could be taken to achieve them.

The study, which looked at the role that MWS could play in three EU countries with high recycling performance – Germany, Belgium, and Sweden – concluded that, in addition to separate collection and improved recyclability of plastic packaging, a full roll-out of effective MWS is likely to be required to ensure that recycling targets are consistently met and to ensure progress towards the EU’s wider carbon emission reduction targets.

MWS could save between 10.2 and 23.2 Mt CO₂e/year, depending on the success of improvements in separate collection. This would represent savings of up to 21% of total EU waste sector emissions in 2020. This rises to savings of 28 Mt CO₂e/year, equivalent to 25% of EU waste sector emissions, if more ambitious MWS with higher sorting efficiencies are introduced.

The introduction of mandatory MWS would also help to ensure that plastic and paper packaging recycling targets for 2030 are consistently met, and contribute between 2.9 and 8.2 percentage points to municipal waste recycling targets (depending on the level of ambition of the MWS and the success of separate collection improvements).

In the three countries studied, the addition of sorting of mixed waste before thermal treatment and landfilling is projected to increase recycling rates in 2030 from 50% to 62% in Germany, from 53% to 65% in Belgium and from ~44% to ~58% in Sweden.

In the context of the ongoing revision of key EU policies – the Waste Framework Directive (WFD), the Industrial Emissions Directive (IED) and the Renewable Energy Directive (RED), as well as the forthcoming revision of the EU ETS, ZWE and Reloop propose the following actions to enable a rapid transition towards greater circularity:

  • Mandate, either through the IED or the WFD (or both), the use of mixed waste sorting systems of a defined quality to remove recyclable materials before incineration;
  • Define ‘treatment of waste before landfill’ in the Landfill Directive to require sorting of mixed waste, with sorting defined by the process set out in the WFD;
  • Require that where mixed waste is used to generate renewable energy, operators must use mixed waste sorting systems that meet relevant performance criteria and are designed to remove materials so as to minimise the non-renewable proportion of energy generated from mixed waste;
  • Remove the R1 formula in Annex II of the WFD, so that incineration of municipal waste can no longer be classified as “recovery”;
  • Include incinerators in the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) by 2028 to encourage progress in the quality of sorting systems to remove plastics from the mixed waste remaining after separate collection.
  • Ban the incineration and disposal of recyclable/reusable materials through the revision of the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive (PPWR) of the WFD (or both).


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