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Extended Producer Responsibility





Advanced Mechanical Recycling



Mixed Waste Sorting


Holistic Resource Systems





Deposit Return Systems



Clarissa Morawski

Co-founder and CEO of Reloop

06- Unlocking circularity with mixed waste sorting


A recent study published by Reloop (in partnership with Zero Waste Europe), highlights the benefits and vast potential that mixed waste sorting – also known as mixed waste processing – has to positively impact not only recycling and recycled content targets, but also reduce our CO2 emissions.   
In today’s episode of TOMRA Talks Circular, we have the co-creators of this study, Clarissa Morawski, co-founder and CEO of Reloop and Janek Vähk, Zero Waste Europe’s Climate, Energy, and Air Pollution Programme Coordinator, to talk us through their findings. 

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Show Notes


  • What would be the impact on the recycling rate for plastics packaging? [05:51] 

  • What sort of policy do we need to support? [08:13]

  • It's also important that our policies need to be reviewed to help us to reach this goal. [09:40] 

  • Well, at a global, global level, we could talk about the internationally legally binding instrument on plastics pollution. [11:08]

  • So, we are talking about investing 2 or €3 million to equip those facilities with technologies that help us to sort out plastics. [13:40]

  • People are furious about the climate. [15:54]

  • We got a lot of excitement from the NGO Community. [18:05]

  • Final Thoughts. [18:38] 


Mithu: Welcome to TOMRA Talks Circular, where we explore how businesses, municipalities and governments are collaborating towards a circular economy, my name is Mithu Mohren. As climate issues and impacts intensify over the coming years, we will undoubtedly see an influx of innovative technologies and solutions to help combat the crisis. This is important, of course no less important, though, are the solutions and technologies that already exist, ones that have the evidence behind them but lack the awareness, the investment to scale, and the policies to back them up. 

One of these solutions is highlighted in a new study published by RILU in partnership with Zero Waste Europe, and that solution is mixed waste sorting, also known as mixed waste processing. Since a significant amount of waste actually ends up in mixed waste streams, this process has the power to make a real impact, ensuring that valuable materials are extracted before they end up burned, or even buried in landfills. 

In this way, mix waste sorting acts as a stopgap and last chance for those materials to be, yes, rescued, recycled, and turned into new products and packaging. Because mix waste sorting has such a wide net, it has potential to positively impact recycling and recycling content targets like those in the EU and to significantly reduce our CO2 emissions. 

In today's episode, we have the Co-creators of this study with us to dive a little deeper into this process and their studies findings, Clarissa Morawski, Co-founder and CEO of Reloop, is no stranger to our program and we are very happy to have her back today, along with Janek Vähk, an expert in end of life waste management and zero waste Europe, climate, energy and air pollution program coordinator with solid evidence in support of mix waste sorting, Clarissa and Yannick work with governments and industry to help raise awareness with the necessary policies in place and encourage the investments needed to ensure that we can reap the many benefits mixed waste sorting has to offer. Clarissa, welcome back to the program and Janek, it's a pleasure to meet you. 

Clarissa: Hello dear Mithu, nice to be back. 

Janek: Hello and thank you for having me. 

Mithu: Our pleasure, so let's get started like we always try to do in this program. Let's start with the basics tell us what mix waste sorting is, how does it work, and why is it such an important solution implement in the fight against the waste, crisis and climate change? Janek, maybe we start with you. 

Janek: Yes, thank you, so when it comes to mix waste then we often forget about the huge quantities of materials that get wasted. So roughly half of municipal waste ends up in in the mix base stream. So we are talking about 160 million tons of waste that is not separately connected and to just to put it in the context we have, we have currently 150 million tons which is recycled or composted. We are really talking about the maturity of waste that ends either burned or dumped in Europe, so this is the current status quo in Europe and in fact, more and more is incinerated. 

So, this of course has many negative environmental consequences. It contributes to climate change and air pollution emissions. But also the materials get lost for the economy. So, this is important, particularly in the context of multiple crises. We are facing in Europe, but also globally. So, this is really why. We need a new strategy for managing mixed waste in Europe and globally, that focuses on extracting those many valuable materials that end up in mixed waste for different reasons and obviously it is extracting those materials for recycling will have a multiple benefits and when it comes to the technologies then the materials that are ready for extracting are particularly the ones which are carbon intensive. 

So we're talking about metals and plastics. But of course, we can also extract materials such as paper and car fraction and polyester. We even cotton textiles and so, there is a huge potential to reduce the amount of waste. That gets disposed in the very end. 

Mithu:  So, when we're reducing the amount of waste and actually mention it, we're losing it not only into the environment, but also the economy and here I think you're talking about the circular economy that we could be putting it back in and reducing our dependence on virgin materials, whether it be fossil fuel or other virgin materials that we're using for other waste streams, right. 

Janek: Yeah, absolutely. 

Mithu:  OK. In your study, one of the key takeaways was the fact that mixed waste sorting and have a tremendously positive impact on reducing CO2 emissions. Clarissa, maybe you want to take this one, can you take us through the statistics on that. 

Clarissa: Yeah, so first of all, to understand that the study that we were discussing considered the marginal difference between status quo collection, what we're doing today in the European Union and what would happen if we improved our separate collection systems, deposit return improvements in separation technologies and additionally mixed waste sorting on top of that and mixed waste sorting offers that ability to tap into whatever was not previously separated.  So, when we were doing the study, we were pretty well focused on, well, what would be the impact on the recycling rate for plastics packaging and it showed us, indeed, that we need mixed waste sorting to meet packaging recycling targets, but what it also showed us was that the improved recovery meant that we got tremendous, avoided emission benefits from all of that avoided emissions that we are having by recirculating material, but in combination with the fact that we're burning less fossil-based material. So, the combination of the two had tremendous CO2 reduction benefits, which are equivalent to roughly 1/5 of the entire EU's waste emissions sector and that is a sector. That is one of the highest contributors to emissions in Europe, so. 

Mithu: That is 20% right. 

Clarissa: Yeah, over 20%. Yes. So, it's a major contributor, so you know why? We typically look at recycling rates and how they're affected by mixed waste sorting. It also and probably a bigger part of the story, the fact is, its impact on climate reduction so as, as Yannick said, you know, it sort of addresses the triple crisis or the climate crisis, the waste crisis, but also the habitat crisis all in one way. 

Mithu: So, as you said, and I think this is an important point, mix waste sorting is actually complementary to separate source and to deposit return systems, it's really the backstop getting and recovering and as we say, rescuing that material that we would not lose because we're not collecting them through the existing structure. 

Clarissa: Absolutely and you know I am a believer in separate collections and used to think that it was the only way. But after all of these decades, I now realize that unfortunately, we're not always going to get it right and even I, who have been recycling for 30 years, get it wrong myself. 

So, we do need that backstop solution and really, we have to break open that garbage bag and get out those resources. 

Mithu: I couldn't agree more and I am with you and I don't always get it right either. So, I think we're not alone, Clarissa. OK, so we had the technology, we've talked about the trifecta as yet I pointed out. What about policy? What sort of policy do we need to support? Because I'm guessing this isn't going to happen by itself. 

Janek: Yes, so currently mix based sorting is sort of happening organically. It's not mandated by any policy, it's an option and what we see is that it's starting to happen particularly in places where there are huge concerns about the climate change or maybe also now increasingly, in places where the circularity is an issue and this is coming up now quite a bit in the in the context of lack of having enough feedstock, but it's not enough and we need to recognize the importance of mixed based sorting in in both in our waste and climate strategies. And that requires putting in place a new policy framework which should include different elements. 

So first of all, it should mandate sorting of mixed waste and we recommend doing it either via Industrial emissions Directive or based remote directive or both and as you both we just said, we also said that this has to be complementary to separate collections. So, it's not come in state and in fact separate collection helps also mix resorting in a way that and particularly when we talk about the bio separate collection by removing some of these bad waste, it actually helps us to recover more materials from mixed waste. 

But secondly, it's also important that our policies need to be reviewed to help us to reach this goal, and this means also revising policies, such as the renewal extract. That needs to stop considering mixed waste as a feed-stock for renewable energy and here we have we just? 

So we, we heard there is an agreement that Member States can now require mixed resorting as a way to ensure that the fossil materials are removed and also we had some news also from last year when the EU emission trading systems was rebuilt, which proposed that from 2028 municipal waste incinerators could be included and that will be another extra incentive for the industry and but also for the countries to pull out materials such as plastics from mixed waste. 


Mithu:  We're talking about sort of supplementary directives and regulation within Europe. Clarissa, I know you are quite active on the global scale. What's going on there. 

Clarissa: Well, at a global, global level, we could talk about the internationally legally binding instrument on plastics pollution, which is also known as the plastics tree being negotiated at the UN level. They are in the negotiations in May and November. There will be a second and third round of negotiation and that can literally finalize by 2024-2025. There's humongous support at a global level, I think pretty well. Most countries are in the ambitious. The Coalition for the ambition. 

We could easily see binding targets, so that could be something very interesting, but I think what's perhaps even more interesting is that we could see some binding requirements for extended producer responsibility and that would be legislation that would enable a level playing field impact on all producers in the same way all around the world that are currently placing packaging on the market. 

It would be able to levy funds from these companies to properly manage end of life management of their package and I mentioned this because. This global policy effort could literally set up a system where local governments and small and medium sized businesses have the money to invest in systems like separate collection and mix waste sorting so that they can properly manage their waste. 

So, it's very closely linked. You know, we're talking about Europe, we have money. In Europe, we can make these kinds of. But there's a whole global south out there and other countries that are far, far behind us. This has potential applicability all over the world. 

Mithu: I'm glad you brought up the investments. Why is this so important to make this work? 

Janek: So indeed, investments are much needed, particularly to scale up mixed sorting rapidly across Europe. That's absolutely necessary if we want to meet our climate and recycling targets, but also to reduce. Many of the emissions coming from the current treatment of mixed waste and the different ways of doing it. 

So in places where you have so-called NBD plants, so these are mechanical biological treatment plants. They actually are. There are about 500 of them in Europe and these plants, they could be converted into so-called Mrpd plants, basically material recovery and biological treatment plants by making relatively small investments. 

So we are talking about investing 2 or €3 million to equip those facilities with technologies that help us to sort out plastics. So we are talking about optical sorters and metals and other materials and in other places where you don't have empty plants. Then you would need to make slightly bigger investments in order to build sort of like the plan from the scratch. 

Mithu:  And, but I'm guessing even if it's as you call it, slightly bigger investment, those are the regions that we're really losing a tremendous amount of material. 

Janek: Absolutely and clearly by sorting out waste. It would avoid investing much bigger amounts of money, for example in new waste, in generators or even landfills. So, it helps actually to save us. 

Mithu: OK, it'll take a little bit of time, but even really just a little bit of time to get that return back on that investment. We have the technology, policy is moving in the right direction, we have the effect. We have the scientific data. How does industry stand on this, on mix waste sorting? 


Janek: Overall, we are seeing that industries are quite positive. So, we particularly we are talking about the plastics value chain. So we talk about plastic manufacturers, Recyclers, but also metal, especially industries related to packaging. So, we see quite a lot of excitement about it. So maybe what is less clear is how to go about mix based sorting and so that different opinions whether it should be done via for example renewable directive or it should be done via waste framework directive or some other ways. So, that's the maybe the question left. 

Mithu: So, the attitudes are changing everything is moving in the right direction. Why is that happening now? 

Clarissa: Well, times are changing, and I've certainly been around long enough to tell you that the chemical industry, the producers of plastics, have been the biggest proponent to build energy from waste incinerators to manage their materials at end of life. That is definitely changing why, well, you know, they're facing a dual outrage people are furious about the climate, and they know that plastics are a big part of that and they're furious about plastics in the waste stream and the habitat in the ocean and the plastics industry is part of that too. 

So, they're kind of desperate and it's taking them to this place they're facing more taxes on carbon. They're facing new European tax on plastics and they're facing bans and many other economic and outright total threats. So, and finally, they're also facing one potential thing that can help them which is recycle content legislation. 

So, what we're seeing is a lot of more progressives that I would say are looking at vertically integrating their business and thinking more about I don't need to be an extractor of version resources to make a good product that is called plastic that is potentially usable for years and years, potentially generations, if I make it well enough, we're starting to see the more progressives companies like Borealis and Dell that are looking at this industry as sort of a materials management, you know, not sort of mining for oil underground, but in fact collecting, sorting and mechanically recycling, ideally as much as possible above ground and so, we're starting to see that change. And I can say like.  

Just the other day I heard a representative of the energy for waste industry in Europe say our facilities don't want to receive plastics, and that was a change. There's sort of this full circle moment where we're sort of reconciling that this was not necessarily all it's cracked up to be environmentally, because it's just. It doesn't capture back the nearly as small fraction of what was put into the material in the first place is captured through energy from waste. So, we're finally kind of reconciling that and we're looking at better options. 

Mithu: I like the phrase full circle moment, how fitting is that? 

Janek: From our side, we have seen a huge shift in the narrative since 2020, when we published our strategy for managing mixed waste and that time we were sort of seen as our, you know as an NGO acting alone, we got a lot of excitement from NGO Community who were interested in mainly from the perspective of seeing this as a as an alternative to wasting generation. 

But now just three years later, we see many, many actors interested in it. So, we are getting a lot of positive feedback and interest from cities, from industries, from NGO's. But it's, I believe, it's still just a start. So there is much more coming up in the coming years. 

Mithu: And how optimistic are you both?  We both have children, I believe. How optimistic are you both that this change will happen and in Europe we see already change happening? 

Even in Asia, we see some movement and on the other side of the Atlantic. How optimistic are you that this change will come quickly enough for our children? Let's put it and our grandchildren and their children. 

Clarissa: Well, you're going pretty deep here with those questions, but at a basic, I'm very optimistic about the mixed waste sorting more holistic approach around how we manage our resources, I mean we're at a point now where we have so many best in class case studies that it's hard to deny and especially the very companies, the big producers of fast-moving consumer goods are fully recognizing that they have a role to play and they're on board with it, they want actually to see this problem solved. 

That's a very different place where we're at. If you ask me more broadly, if this is going to be something I'm not concerned about for our children, the state of the world, I would say I'm still very, very concerned recycling is an incredibly important part, but it is only a small part, and we still have to cut our production significantly, do more reduction, we're reuse and better and more recycling. 

Janek: Indeed, I do believe mixed based sorting will happen in especially in Europe also because it's not something that you just build extra next to everything else you can actually use those facilities to deal also separate the collected base so it's  really flexible system and therefore it kind of makes sense and I think we have to move in that direction we can't ignore. 

All the waste that we produce and have to sort of get into being less wasteful. So, I think this is something that our children will appreciate when looking back one day. 

Mithu:  Through the resource hierarchy, as we call it here at TOMRA, we have the technology to to get to those resources to reduce CO2 emissions, but why not move in that direction? Thank you both very much for your time for your expertise and I can tell you, we look forward to having you back.  

Janek: Thank you. 

Clarissa: Thank you very much bye bye. 

Mithu: If you've enjoyed this podcast, please leave us a rating, subscribe and turn on notifications to comment on this episode. Visit