We all agree that we should recycle more – at home, in the office or when out and about. But for materials to be actually recycled, they first need to find their way to the right waste stream so that they can be then collected and taken to the right place for recycling. This is what the process of sorting allows us to do.
For effective recycling we need effective sorting – and this needs to happen first, in our own home and second, in dedicated sorting plants to which waste collected from our doorstep and communal points is taken. When you put a plastic bottle in the right recycling bag or bin, you are helping sort recyclables so that the right material can be fed into the right recycling process. If sorting does not happen, a lot of recyclable materials can end up in landfills or be incinerated, and valuable resources lost from our economy. Sorting at home is the first step towards recycling.
In Europe, 6 of the 16 tonnes of material used per person per year becomes waste. Despite improvements in our waste management system, the European economy is still losing a significant amount of potential ‘secondary raw materials’ that can be recycled from our waste. In 2010, the EU’s total waste production reached 2,5 billion tons of which only 36% was recycled. The rest was landfilled or burned even though some 600 million tons could have been recycled or reused[sc:1].
So, we need to take sorting seriously if we are to minimise the amount of recyclable material that does not end up being recycled despite provisions set up already by governments. What complicates things is that collection systems can be very different and this requires the consumer to sort waste in different ways from country to country but sometimes also from city to city. For instance, in Brussels (Belgium) consumers put plastic packaging, cans and beverage cartons in blue bags designated for recyclable packaging; paper in yellow bags for recycling; and glass needs to be taken to specific collection bins. Somewhat differently, in Vienna (Austria), citizens can expect their paper, metal, glass and plastic to be separately collected in different weeks of the year.
So citizens need to be aware of their local collection system so that they can sort their recyclables at home and limit the amount of potentially recyclable materials that accidentally end up going for landfill or incineration.
Once recyclable materials are collected from your doorstep or communal bins, they are further sorted in specialised facilities which ensure the quality of the recycling process. This is where different sorting techniques come into play. Traditionally, sorting has been done either manually with workers sorting what can be recycled and picking out the materials to be discarded or mechanically. Today, however, sophisticated sorting technologies are being developed in order to speed up the process of sorting but to also yield better results. Exciting technologies using magnets or optical systems are being used to effectively sort materials so more of it can be recycled. Given the increased need to minimising our waste across Europe, it is estimated that the plastics sorting and recycling sector will see a 25% growth which translates to the development of about 300 plants for sorting and recycling by 2025[sc:2].