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Circular economy instead of thermal recycling

In today's established waste management, thermal recycling predominates, and the carbons contained in the waste are released into the atmosphere as climate-damaging CO2. The transition to a circular economy aims to limit these emissions and avoid the excessive consumption of resources. This requires a complete reorganization of the treatment of recyclable material streams, with the consortium initially focusing on waste streams containing plastics. The vision of this project is the comprehensive recycling of plastic-containing waste without loss of carbon through interlocking, networked processes with maximum preservation of existing chemical structures. This is intended to provide innovative recycling technologies for complex wastes that can be used to obtain high-quality recyclates.

Recycling chain is reorganized and aligned with the material flow

The plan is to develop a holistic, entropy-based assessment model that reorganizes the recycling chain, which has been process-guided to date, into a material-guided chain (entropy = measure of the disorder of a system). A new type of guided sorting recognizes which materials and, in particular, which plastic fractions are contained in the waste. In line with this, a decision is then made as to which recycling route is the most technically, ecologically and economically sensible for this specific waste quantity.

Partial flows instead of disorder enable more carbon conservation

System optimization no longer lies in the optimization of the individual process, but rather in the entropy-optimized separation of the total flow and the targeted allocation to the energetically optimized recycling processes. A material stream is broken down into its sub-streams, which are then assigned to different processing routes on the basis of a technology hierarchy. What cannot be further utilized by means of mechanical recycling (mechanical recycling, solvent-based purification and fractionation) is available for chemical recycling (solvolysis, pyrolysis and gasification), always with the aim of obtaining the maximum possible amount of carbon compounds. Thermal recycling at the end of the chain is thus eliminated.

View of economic valuation and regulatory framework

The content of the lighthouse project also includes the economic evaluation of a new recycling process chain, for example the effects of rising prices for CO2 certificates or new regulatory requirements such as the European Climate Act, the EU Action Plan for the Circular Economy or the Packaging Act. For the development of new business models, both processes in waste management and in the chemical industry will be considered in a holistic perspective and combined with today's established recycling technologies. The project consortium will also conduct comprehensive life cycle analysis (LCA) studies for the individual recycling technologies in order to be able to take the corresponding data into account in the digital twin and to highlight potential environmental risks and opportunities.

© Fraunhofer IMWS

The main research areas in detail

The research activities in the lighthouse project "Waste4Future" comprise several focal points. Here you can find out more details about the planned activities.

Evaluation model

Sensor Technology

Sorting Technology

Mechanical Recycling

Chemical Recycling

Fomulation Development