Report finds recycling of biopolymers most effective form of waste disposal

18-Mar-10
A report for UK government refutes persistent claims that recycling is a waste of time, calls for better facilities and an increase in incineration. Recycling is almost always the best way to get rid of waste, even when it is exported abroad. The report also supports another recent report published by the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs warning that biopolymer plastics made from crops should be recycled rather than put into compost, despite being widely marketed as "biodegradable". Wrap, the government's waste and packaging agency, said it had analysed 200 reports covering seven different materials: paper and cardboard, plastics, biopolymers, food, garden cuttings, wood and textiles. The experts then looked at the evidence for seven methods of disposal, including recycling, composting, incineration and landfill, measured by four different criteria: energy use, water use, other resource use, and greenhouse gas emissions. In more than four out of five cases, recycling was the clear winner. But there were "different messages" for different materials. For biopolymers, the preferable option is recycling, while for food and garden waste, anaerobic digestion looks preferable; then composting and incineration with energy recovery come out very similar. For textiles, the limited available statistics show reuse is clearly optimal, followed by recycling and then energy recovery [incineration]. For plastics, there is strong evidence that recycling is the better option, because recycling has improved, while for wood, recycling looks preferable. The study also considered the impact of transporting waste to other countries, often to China, for recycling. It found that overseas transport was still better than sending it to landfill. The report’s main conclusions for plastics as reported in PRW are: * Mechanical recycling is the best waste management option overall. * The environmental benefits of recycling are maximised by collecting good-quality material (to limit the rejected fraction) and by replacement of virgin plastics at a high ratio (1 : 1). * Incineration with energy recovery performs poorly overall, but pyrolysis appears to be an emerging option in terms of all indicators. * Landfill is confirmed as having the worst environmental impacts in most cases. * As the UK moves to a lower carbon energy mix, recycling will become increasingly favoured. For biopolymers, the report said: * Limited data show good environmental performance for mechanical and chemical recycling. * A main advantage often cited for biopolymers is that some of them are degradable or compostable. But composting does not appear to be advantageous for energy demand and depletion of natural resources compared to the other alternatives. * Anaerobic digestion performs better than composting in terms of climate change potential and energy demand. Anaerobic digestion scores over composting in recovery of the biogas produced.
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