Waste: a valuable resource for performance materials

Cellulose fibres in hamburger containers, diapers and jeans and plastics from all sorts of packaging... Waste offers a variety of valuable raw materials. But how can they be extracted and converted into high-quality materials that can be used for packaging, clothing and building materials?

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Wageningen Food & Biobased Research studies which components are found in our waste and how they can be made applicable for reuse. Parties across the value chain ­– waste and material processing companies, government agencies, consumer product manufacturers – use these insights to create a circular economy. We think the circular economy can grow over the coming decades, by working on four important preconditions:

  • Materials must be designed in such a way that they can be recycled with the available collection and processing methods.
  • When collecting waste, it is important that the components are properly separated, either by consumers themselves or at a later stage. This starts with labelling products and informing consumers: the better the information, the better the waste separation – in principle, at least.
  • Contaminants in residual and waste products must be separated from the main product to enable the production of good-quality new products from clean recyclates.
  • All residual and waste streams have their own unique functionalities which must be retained as best as possible in the recycling process.

At Wageningen Food & Biobased Research we wish to carry out more research into the waste we generate as a society, studying how we can separate that waste and process it into fractions for the production of new materials and products as well as possible. In doing so we can show companies, governments and the general public that waste can indeed be a valuable resource for performance materials.

A circular economy: why?

The calls for a circular economy are growing, with an increasing number of politicians, scientists, companies and ordinary civilians realising that the reuse of products and recovery of raw materials is essential both for ourselves and for our planet. As the global population continues its unstoppable growth, raw materials are becoming increasingly scarce. And the fossil-resources driven consequences of climate change are becoming ever more visible.

Reusing discarded materials reduces the need for new raw materials and on top of that, the consumption of energy for producing those materials. Consequence is that it will lower greenhouse gas emissions and reduce the use of agricultural land for the production of components such as wood or cotton, which in turn could provide more space for food crop cultivation and cattle farming.

An important precondition, however, is that materials from waste are actually being used in high-end applications and that the ecological footprint of these materials is actually smaller. In other words, it should take fewer raw materials and less energy to recycle than it does to make new materials.