The balance between planet and profit in the waste bin

You regularly see them in cities such as Amsterdam and Utrecht: the blue-white Renewi trucks. They make their rounds to collect waste, primarily from companies. The largest part of this waste is recycled into a new raw material or a new product. An interview about the challenge of waste.

Reusing old things has been a practice dating back to the very beginning of humanity’s existence. The rag collector who went door to door collecting old clothing comes to mind, for example. ‘As a business process, today’s recycling is not all that different, although, naturally, the way in which it is done and the underlying concept have changed,’ says Jorrian Dorlandt, Communications Manager at Renewi.

‘In the past you wanted to get rid of your waste, today we are more conscious about it. Nowadays you don’t know any better but to separate your waste.’ We have been recycling for many years, but this trend has taken off over the past five years, according to Dorlandt. ‘This is due to two different developments that reinforce each other: sustainability and a scarcity of raw materials. Plastic is made from oil and oil will run out at some point in time. You then have of one of two options: either you look for alternative ways to make plastic, or you convert all of the plastic currently in circulation in the world back into oil from which you can then make plastic again. That is the principle underlying the circular economy.’

As an international company, Renewi operates in nine countries, although primarily in the Netherlands and Belgium. The company resulted from the 2017 merger of the British company Shanks and the Dutch company Van Gansewinkel Group. Renewi is a so-called waste-to-product business. ‘We collect waste and process that into new raw materials,’ says Dorlandt. Sometimes the waste is processed into a new product and at other times the raw materials are shipped to parties that reprocess it into products.

12.6 million tonnes recyclable waste

The Renewi trucks collect 14 million tonnes of waste each year. Of this, 67 percent is converted into new raw materials and 23 percent into energy. In other words, 90 percent of the collected waste is reused.

The waste comes from all directions, from the corner butcher to major internationals. ‘We are the largest domestic service provider in the field of waste processing,’ says Dorlandt. He sums up: ‘Used pallets become wood chips for chipboard, glass is converted into glass splinters used to make new glass, and after processing, plastic is diverted to the plastics industry.’

In total we employ 8,000 people, of which 4,300 work in the Netherlands. This includes employees working on innovation, and who work together with other parties, such as start-ups.

Orange Peels

A good example of this is the cooperation with PeelPioneers, a small company that processes citrus peels. ‘For example, when you use the orange pressing machine in a supermarket to make a bottle of orange juice, we collect the peels,’ Dorlandt explains. ‘We then bring the peels to a PeelPioneers plant at one of our sites. They extract ethereal oils from the orange peels that are subsequently used as a flavouring agent in foods or as an ingredient in cleaning agents.’

‘We have the scale, the customer with the citrus peels and the logistics. This way we help innovations of this nature get off the ground,’ says Dorlandt.

In other words, Renewi manages to give 90 percent of the collected waste a second or third life. What happens to the remaining 10 percent? ‘This is not yet recycled and instead is incinerated or dumped,’ Dorlandt explains. ‘The reason for this is that there are as yet no solutions for this. We are still facing a significant challenge in this area.’

Today’s waste, tomorrow’s raw materials

The company itself aims to play a role in this challenge. For example, the company’s consultants advise customers about their products. ‘We contribute ideas about marketing the products,’ says Dorlandt. ‘What are the implications when the product becomes waste; can it still serve some purpose at that point? For example, different plastics are often used in combination together, making their recycling a real challenge. We explain that a different composition provides for better recycling options further down the road.’

Furthermore, according to Dorlandt, customers are increasingly more often asking for ways in which to make their products better recyclable. ‘Trioworld is naturally also busily working on this in the area of plastics, for example by making products from a single material or from biodegradable materials.’

In addition, Renewi also likes to advise customers about their waste. ‘We really would like them to properly separate their waste at source, so that it can be better recycled. Otherwise we have a mix that, while we can still do something with it, takes more energy and costs more money to recycle.’

Despite the challenges that still remain, Dorlandt is optimistic about the future. ‘100-percent recyclable is still far off. However, slowly but surely there is a significant movement giving thought to a product’s end of life. Organisations, government organisations and citizens are increasingly involved in more initiatives to create an impact. But the fact is that our starting point is our existing situation and you cannot just change the production processes from one day to the next. We still have some way to go.’

Ultimately, according to Dorlandt, the crux of the matter is to quickly find a new balance between people, planet and profit. ‘It would be really great if from now on we would view today’s waste as an opportunity to convert it into the raw materials of tomorrow.’