A new waste market is taking shape in Europe, following COVID-19, says recovery firm

Some European countries still have few restrictions on what can be landfilled, which means a lot of waste feedstock that is suited to material recycling or energy recovery is currently being landfilled.

Kjetil Vikingstad, CEO of resource recovery specialist Geminor, writes

Despite the recent flare-up of the COVID-pandemic in Europe, a number of countries are reporting a gradual normalization of society with increased consumption, higher rates of employment, and an economy moving in the right direction. This also means that the volumes of both household waste and industrial waste are on the way back to pre-pandemic levels.

If we look in the rearview mirror, the COVID period has for several reasons created a change both in the disposal of waste, in the waste streams, and in the market mechanisms on the continent. Disposal and management of waste in Europe have admittedly always been a dynamic process. However, the current development is faster and more unpredictable than ever before. The most important drivers are, of course, the pandemic, varying laws and regulations in Europe, and an increasing focus on sustainability and circular economy.

Access to waste as feedstock
The largest export market for RDF in Europe has for a long time been the United Kingdom, supplying EfW facilities in the Nordics and Western Europe. In the past few months, COVID has contributed to a reduction in waste volumes, leading to a fall of as much as 540,000 tonnes of RDF for export from the English market in the first half of 2021.

According to the agency Footprint Services, this is a decrease of almost 25 percent compared to the same period in 2020. Simultaneously, the incineration capacity increases significantly in the UK, which is likely to reduce export further. Smaller volumes available in the UK will have a clear impact on the European RDF and SRF markets over time.

With regard to this, there is a growing demand for new markets that can replace the volumes from the UK. Countries such as Poland and Italy are in the process of developing an export market, but in the longer-term other European countries will be required to step in to ensure access to waste feedstock for the many off-takers in the Nordics and elsewhere.

At the moment there are few restrictions on landfill in several countries in Europe. Hence, waste feedstock that is well suited for material recycling or energy recovery is currently being landfilled. A common European ban on landfilling would both increase the recycling rate on the continent, and help stabilize the market.

Logistics and transport
Access to waste is one thing – transport and punctuality another. Industry players both upstream and downstream depend on predictable logistics and transport to ensure their operations. The acute shortage of haulier services in both the UK and Europe is hopefully a temporary problem but draws attention to the need for predictability for the industry: Having access to varied, flexible, and cost-effective transport solutions will become increasingly important in the years to come. The current transport challenges just increase the need for more storage and buffer capacity, which is an issue for many off-takers today.

Development of fractions
The move towards a more sustainable Europe involves more material recycling, where chemical and mechanical recycling of plastics is an important ingredient. Nevertheless, today we are not efficient enough in the development of fractions for recycling. For the most sustainable and efficient disposal of waste resources such as plastic, more expertise within recycling is required – as well as better financial incentives. More extensive cooperation between waste producers and off-takers will also be a prerequisite.

In line with material recycling, the development of more sustainable designer fuels for energy recovery will be important going forward. In this process, equal taxation on waste incineration in Europe would be helpful.