Automated Central Sorting of Plastic Packaging Waste – A Qualitative Study of Drivers, Barriers and Possible Solutions for Implementing Automated Central Sorting of Plastic Packaging Waste in Sweden
Abstract: It is widely known in the recycling industry that only a small share of the plastic packaging put on the Swedish market is materially recycled. The collection rate for plastic packaging waste is low, with most of it being disposed of in the municipal solid waste, instead of being correctly sorted in the public collection system. Furthermore, significant reject levels in the material recycling processes decrease the amount of plastic that is actually materially recycled. The vast majority of the plastic packaging put on the market is instead incinerated for energy recovery in Sweden’s waste-to-energy sector, which creates significant greenhouse gas emissions. Legislatively, plastic packaging is covered by Extended Producer Responsibility, which is a way of shifting the responsibility for end- of-life management of products from the public to the importer or manufacturer. This is seen as an application of the Polluter Pays Principle, which is an important concept in the EU’s waste legislation. Automated central sorting is a promising technology for removing plastic packaging before waste incineration. This thesis investigated drivers, barriers and possible solutions for implementing automated central sorting in Sweden. Furthermore, it evaluated the ability to increase material recycling of plastic packaging waste and the ability to decrease the amount of greenhouse gas emissions caused by the waste-to-energy sector. To meet the research objectives, a literature review and semi-structured interviews were conducted. The results show that an implementation of automated central sorting might increase the collection rate for plastic packaging waste, but that parallel and holistic actions are required to significantly increase the material recycling rate. Similarly, an increased collection of plastic packaging waste may decrease greenhouse gas emissions locally, but the lack of demand for recycled plastic means that there is a risk that it will be incinerated somewhere else. Therefore, initiatives to increase the demand for recycled plastic are important. Additionally, results show that producers are willing to invest in initiatives to improve plastic packaging waste collection and material recycling. However, under the current implementation of Extended Producer Responsibility, they are unable to directly finance automated central sorting. Therefore, investments are likely to come from public funding, which impedes the Polluter Pays Principle. In conclusion, automated central sorting can be a valuable technology for increasing the collection of plastic packaging waste. However, it does not address the root of the problem, which is that a vast amount of low quality and unrecyclable plastic packaging is put on the market.
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