Waste Material Utilization: Reuse, Recycle, Energy Recovery

Recycling is an integral part of any waste management system as it represents a key utilization alternative to reuse and energy recovery (Waste-to-Energy). Which option is ultimately chosen depends on the quality, purity and the market situation.

The quality requirements for waste materials range from reuse to energy recovery (as shown in the figure above). Reuse requires a minimum functionality that reconditioning can be accomplished within certain cost and time limits. Recycling only requires a single material waste stream of high purity (source collection) and a WTE facility is able to process any waste for energy recovery as long as it is not contaminated with hazardous substances.

To meet these requirements the different waste streams (e.g., municipal solid waste, industrial waste, pharmaceutical waste, etc.) must be treated differently. A waste management system of a municipality, county, etc. separates and controls the different waste streams according to the available treatment options in this certain region. However, the rise or fall of a waste management system highly depends on the support of the residents and employees. They take the first step in a long chain of processes by separating their waste stream in direct reusable or recyclable waste streams (e.g., paper, plastics, glass, etc.) and waste that can be used as a fuel for energy recovery.

Life-Cycle Assessments (LCA) can help to decide whether it is sustainable either to reuse or recycle certain waste streams or to recover the energy only. LCA is a comparative methodology used to determine the environmental impact and energy or resource consumption of products and services over their whole life cycles (extraction of the raw materials, production of the product itself, use of the product and treatment after disposal as waste). Any utilization strategy that consumes more resources and energy or has a greater environmental impact then the initial production from primary raw materials is considered “non-sustainable”.

Video: Waste Management 101: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle!