Creating New Value from Waste And Industrial Side Streams
The recycling and waste management industry has a common problem: all the easily recyclable waste is already being recycled. But like all other businesses, companies in this industry are looking for growth. Thus, there is a high demand for new methods to utilise new side streams and sources of waste.
Written by: Pekka Pekkala — January 2017
This untapped resource – comprising waste and residue – equals 900 million tons in Europe alone. Much of it is being used already, but one-quarter of the waste biomass is technically available as feedstock for advanced biofuels. Finland has a long history in the forest industry, which means the country has a massive amount of knowledge about processing biomass.
Therefore, Finland is aiming to be an early adopter of what is known as the “waste and residue industry 2.0.” According to a recent evaluation report titled “Wasted: Europe’s untapped resource,” this previously untouched asset could be a potential goldmine when utilised in full. By 2030, it could generate up to €15 billion of additional annual revenue in Europe alone, flowing into rural economies and providing 300,000 additional jobs.
When Kuusankoski Recycling, a Finnish company with a turnover of €500 million, has these problems, it turns to VTT. Kuusankoski R&D engineer Tiina Malin has worked with VTT on three different projects focusing on waste resources she describes as challenging:
“In one of the projects, we researched the possibility of recycling certain difficult types of plastics and rubber fractions. The service we bought from VTT included the whole process: hand-picking suitable materials from the waste stream we provided them, analysing them, doing material characterisations, and performing evaluations to get meaningful results.”
After the laboratory tests, VTT helped with the business case by offering suggestions on how to develop current processes at Kuusankoski to utilise the newly found resource. VTT acts as an outsourced research arm for the client, helping the in-house staff find new revenue streams.
Burning is not the only option for hazardous waste
For L&T, another recycling and waste management company from Finland, VTT is a partner in dealing with hazardous waste. Mikko Paasikivi, business manager at L&T, says the traditional method for handling dangerous materials involves incinerating them under high temperatures. However, this is not considered as part of the “circular economy” or recycling; it is more like a last-resort solution. If you cannot do anything else, burn it. According to Paasikivi, this is slowly changing with the help of VTT:
“Extracting valuable materials from side streams, such as oil, paint, or glue, is our main concern right now. In many cases, the actual process of fractioning these streams is not the problem, increasing the production to an industrial scale is. We have systems and processes designed to handle massive amounts of municipal or industrial waste. These systems do not work well on a smaller scale, which is the case with hazardous waste.”
Another challenge for L&T involves creating completely new products or materials from waste. Steel will be always recycled as steel, but plastic might turn into something completely different in its second life.
“Reliability and credibility are big factors when we are choosing partners.”
Both Malin and Paasikivi emphasise how important it is, in processes like these, to have a reliable partner with up-to-date information about current and future legislation inside the EU and globally.
“Reliability and credibility are big factors when we are choosing partners. With VTT, you can rest assured that nobody questions the science or laboratory results they provide,” Paasikivi says.
Turning old-school process manufacturing into a bioeconomy powerhouse
Because recycling and reusing waste materials is getting more and more challenging, the methods of extracting additional value from these streams are becoming increasingly complicated as well. The VTT recycling concept integrates mechanical, thermal, and hydrometallurgical unit processes. This enables new methods of utilising a wide range of heterogeneous complex wastes.
Jutta Laine-Ylijoki, senior scientist at VTT, is convinced that these new methods of recycling will revolutionise the way we think about recycling:
“This means we do not recycle from material to material but from material to elements and then back to completely different materials. This way we could take composite ingredients, break them apart, and recycle everything, not just the organic or inorganic material like we do today.”
These solutions include pyrolysis, which involves decomposing materials with heat in the absence of oxygen, and other thermochemical conversions, such as gasification. This turns waste management into process manufacturing, where the processes focus on ingredients and formulas and not parts or materials. With these new processes, the recycling industry can use anything, from industrial side streams to municipal solid waste, as ingredients for new products.
Raija Lantto, principal investigator at VTT, thinks Finland has a great industrial history that can be turned into an asset within the circular economy:
“Finland has always been strong in process manufacturing—look at our paper and pulp industries or the success of Neste’s refineries. We have the know-how; now we just have to rethink how we can use these skills to make us a bioeconomy superpower.”