Interview with Jiří Fiedor – an expert in recycling and waste management

BY Ing. Žaneta Milošová (Havírová)

In an interview with an expert, we delve into the issue of recycling in the Czech Republic. Ing. Jiří Fiedor, Ph.D. gives us an insight into the challenges and solutions in waste management. Why is landfilling still dominant, even though waste can be a source of energy? How do mixed packaging and unclear labelling complicate sorting? And why has the Czech Republic not met the EU standards yet?

Ing. Jiří Fiedor, Ph.D. is an academic at the Department of Chemistry and Physical Chemistry Processes at VSB – Technical University of Ostrava. Although he originally studied Water Treatment and Technology, fate led him to the field of waste management, where he became fascinated by waste treatment technologies. His career is associated with research on the impact of industrial technologies on the environment, especially water and air. Jiří has observed the dynamic development of waste management and witnessed technological progress driven by legislative changes. His passion and expertise in the field are evident from his long-standing collaboration with industrial partners.

Does your work influence you in any way? Knowing what happens with waste and harmful substances, do you personally try to minimize the impact on the environment?

Jiří: My work has become not only my profession but also my hobby. The topic of waste management is so important and significantly affects the daily lives of all of us. I feel the need to spread the word about what happens to waste after it has been placed in a dumpster and to educate the general public as well. Of course, I try to manage my household waste as responsibly as possible, in accordance with applicable legislation. I often explain to my children what happens or should happen to different types of waste. I hope they are not tired of it yet.. ?

I remember you said , “The best waste is the one that doesn’t exist at all.” in our waste management class. Is it possible in the present, or future, for waste not to be generatedat all?

Jiří: It’s true that in the past, I often argued that the ideal would be for no waste to be generated. However, withtime I’ve come to understand that reality is more complex. Today, I firmly follow the waste hierarchy, which applies to all EU countries. To summarize it for clarity:

  1. If waste is generated, we should strive to reuse as much of it as possible. For example, a car’s side mirror from a scrapped vehicle can serve another car.
  2. Waste should be prioritized for material use, i.e., recycling. The goal here is to transform waste into raw materials for further production. For instance, a PET bottle can be crushed, melted, and turned into textile fibers for making sleeping bags or carpets. This process requires a clean input material.
  3. If waste is not suitable for recycling but contains energy, it should be used for energy production, whether it’s thermal or electrical.
  4. As a last resort in the hierarchy, waste should be incinerated without heat recovery or safely disposed of in a secure landfill.

 Theoretically, if no waste existed at all, I wouldn’t have a job. Though that’s just a little joke to wrap things up. ?

Plastic is incredibly useful and ubiquitous, but we don’t seem to know how to handle it properly. How do you see the plastic recycling situation ?

Jiří: Plastic recycling is currently a very relevant topic in the EU countries. In the rest of the world, it’s not as pressing, and sometimes this issue isn’t addressed at all. In Europe, the most common method of disposing of plastic waste is its further utilization for energy recovery, with recycling coming second. About a quarter of all plastic waste ends up in landfills. The EU aims to recycle 55% of plastic packaging by 2030.

Half of the plastics destined for recycling are exported outside the EU. This is primarily due to insufficient capacity, technological limitations, and financial constraints for waste processing within Europe. The export of waste from the EU to countries outside its borders reached 32.7 million tons in 2020, with most of it going to Turkey, India, and Egypt. Until a few years ago China and Malaysia were major destinations, but there has been a significant reduction in their acceptance of plastic waste.

The main challenges in plastic recycling are the quality and cost of recycled products, compared to the production of new items. This is becasue plastic manufacturers require large quantities of recycled material processed to strictly controlled specifications (i.e. high input purity of plastic waste into the recycling facility) and, of course, at a competitive price.

What is the situation with plastic recycling in the Czech Republic?

Jiří: In the Czech Republic, tens of thousands of tons of plastic waste will likely remain unused at recycling centers this year. Although the Waste Act prohibits the disposal of unused plastic residues from sorting lines in landfills, waste processors often don’t know how to deal with these plastic materials because they lack the market for them. This situation reveals a long-standing problem in the Czech waste industry: plastics are often not recycled, and the capacity for their processing is insufficient.

The contents of yellow bins are directed to sorting lines where workers select plastics suitable for sale. Typically, these are PET and hollow plastics, such as detergent containers. Colourless PET bottles are particularly sought after. It is estimated that up to 50% of the contents of yellow containers are difficult to recycle, especially because of the lack of recycling capacity in the Czech Republic.

The collection and recycling of packaging in the Czech Republic is managed by the EKO-KOM a.s., funded by mandatory fees from producers and importers of plastic packaging. EKO-KOM has established an extensive network of collection containers, and most of its budget is allocated to organizing and collecting these containers. Only 6% of the budget is dedicated to supporting recycling. This distribution of resources is one of the reasons why there are not enough companies in the Czech Republic capable of producing plastic regranulate and why regranulate is often imported from Germany, where it is cheaper.

According to official data from EKO-KOM, 76% of manufactured packaging is sent for further processing and recycling. Of this 44% is sorted by residents in municipal systems, and 56% is sorted by industrial companies and retail networks. Thanks to this efficient system, the Czech Republic has already met some of the European targets set for 2025.

The Czech Republic has a high-quality network of recycling containers. Currently, there are over 558,000 of them, which is an average of one collection point for every 100 inhabitants. On average, we only have to walk 90 meters to the nearest container. In 2020, more than 40% of sorted plastic packaging was sent for mechanical recycling. The rest was processed into certified alternative fuel or used for energy recovery purposes.

Recycling in the Czech Republic is done relatively well, but what about the rest of the world? I know that people living in the USA have told me that recycling there is a total scam, that everything is done for show, and that plastics are not actually recycled. Is that true?

Jiří: Unfortunately, the plastic recycling situation in the US is not as optimistic as many would hope. Despite being one of the world’s largest producers of plastic waste, the capacity and willingness for plastic recycling in the United States is inadequate.

According to a 2019 research report published in the international academic journal “Science Advances”, titled “The United States” contribution of plastic waste to land and ocean” the United States produce an enormous amount of plastic waste. In 2016, plastic waste production in the United States reached the highest level globally, with a total of 42 million tons. This means that even though the USA accounts for only 4% of the world’s population, it is responsible for 17% of global plastic waste.

Ironically, while the USA often criticizes Asian countries for plastic pollution, they themselves are the main contributors to the problem. The annual production of plastic waste in the USA is 130.1 kg per capita.

It’s important to realize that this issue is not just an environmental concern but also a matter of global responsibility. Although there are efforts in the USA to improve recycling and reduce plastic waste production, there is still much work to be done.

Can we determine the percentage of recyclable materials (paper, plastic, glass, metal, etc.) that genuinely gets recycled into something useful? What is the actual rate of recycling for recyclable materials in the Czech Republic?

Jiří: When we discuss recycling in the Czech Republic, it’s important to consider several key points that influence the overall picture.

Misleading Recycling Data: In the past, data has been presented that may have led the public to a misconseptions about the actual rate of recycling of plastic packaging. For example, the company EKO-KOM reported that the plastic packaging recycling rate reached up to 69%. However, this figure included all plastics that passed through sorting facilities, regardless of whether they were actually recycled.

New Waste Law: since 2021, there is a new waste law that presents new challenges. The law prohibits landfilling of pre-sorted waste with a calorific value higher than 6.5 MJ/kg in dry matter. Essentially, this means that anything that burns well could be used through incineration. It’s a step in the right direction, but there is still room for improvement.

Official Data from EKO-KOM: Looking at the official data from EKO-KOM, we can get a clearer picture of the recycling situation in the Czech Republic.

The majority, specifically two-thirds, of the sorted packaging waste in our country consists of paper, glass, beverage cartons, and metal. The recycling rate for these materials is stable and has been around 80% for a long time. Almost all of this packaging waste is directed toward material recycling.

When it comes to consumer plastic packaging, which makes up the remaining third of sorted waste, the situation is a bit more complicated. In 2020, more than 40% of the plastic from the initially sorted amount was sent for mechanical recycling. The rest of it was either processed into certified alternative fuels, used for energy recovery or, if not otherwise usable, sent to landfills.

If we look at estimates for 2020 in the context of currently known rules, we expect that, according to the new records, approximately 87% of paper packaging, 83% of glass packaging, and 61% of metal packaging will be recycled. For these materials, we can anticipate meeting EU targets without significant complications. However, the situation is somewhat different for plastics. The plastic recycling rate is estimated at 40%, which is below the EU target of 50% by 2025. That being said, the EU provides us with some time to adapt to these new requirements.

It’s important to realize that while we are on a good path in some areas of recycling, there is still much work ahead, especially in the realm of plastic recycling.

So, if everything is not recycled, someone might think that sorting waste is pointless. The way I see it, it is better to sort waste (even what won’t be further recycled) than to pollute forests and rivers with litter. What happens to the plastic that isn’t recycled?

Jiří: It’s true that many people may feel that if not everything is being recycled, sorting waste doesn’t make sense. However, we must realize that we live in a time when technologies are constantly evolving and improving. What cannot be efficiently recycled today might be processed tomorrow thanks to new technologies. Sorting waste also gives us the opportunity to better understand the waste our society generates, enabling us to plan and invest in future technologies and solutions more effectively.

Regarding the plastic that isn’t recycled, the situation is as follows: In the Czech Republic, approximately 50% of plastics from yellow containers are recycled. The rest, especially in cities with municipal incinerators, is used for energy recovery. In cities without incineration facilities, some plastic waste is transported to the nearest incinerators. Certain plastics may also be used as a component in solid alternative fuels.

It’s important to realize that even though some plastics aren’t recycled, their use for energy recovery is still better than letting them sit in landfills or releasing them into the environment without control. Using plastics for energy can be a transitional solution until better recycling technologies become available or until our consumption habits change.

In recent years, combined packaging has indeed become more popular, often promoted as something “greener” (it’s most noticeable on yogurt cups: plastic cup with an aluminum lid, wrapped in paper or another type of plastic – I mean the plastic around mineral water bottles, shampoo bottles, PET bottles, etc., what type of plastic is it and can it be recycled?). From my surroundings, I can see that people find it tiresome to “dissect” and sort packaging into separate materials. How do you perceive this? What do you think is more “ecological”?

Jiří: Combined packaging has indeed become more popular in recent times, often under the guise of being more environmentally friendly or providing better product protection. It’s true that some combined packaging can extend the shelf life of food products and reduce food waste. However, from a recycling perspective, they pose a challenge.

If we take a common yogurt container as an example, it consists of a plastic cup, a paper or other plastic wrap, and an aluminum lid. For consumers, this can be challenging to separate, and many people might not bother to do so. From an environmental standpoint, it’s essential for materials to be separated properly to facilitate recycling.

Regarding the plastics used for bottle wrapping or shampoo bottles, it can be various types of plastics, but often it includes polyethylene (PE) or polypropylene (PP). These plastics are generally recyclable, but when combined with other materials, it can complicate the recycling process.

Personally, I believe that we should move toward simpler packaging that is easily recyclable and doesn’t require complex sorting by consumers. While combined packaging may have its advantages in certain applications, we should strive to minimize their use where possible. It’s also crucial for manufacturers and brands to be transparent in communicating how to sort and recycle their packaging and provide consumers with clear instructions.

Even though I’m interested in recycling and waste in general, I often find myself confused about whether to put something in the yellow container or not. This is because the product packaging often contains multiple materials which are not always indicated on the packaging. Additionally, some plastics are layered on top of each other, and while some can be recycled, others cannot. See the photo – the manufacturer indicates that it should be thrown away, but that is not always specified, even when the packaging looks the same. What does the law require manufacturers to state in such cases?

Jiří: You are absolutely right that recycling and waste sorting can be confusing for many people, especially due to combined packaging and unclear labeling on products. In the Czech Republic, manufacturers are not required to provide recycling symbols on their packaging, which can lead to confusion among consumers. The Packaging Act specifies what information should be on the packaging, but recycling symbols are not mandatory.

When it comes to one plastic on top of another, it is indeed complicated. Some plastics are easily recyclable, while others are not. If a manufacturer states that the plastic should be removed before recycling, it is probably because that specific plastic is not recyclable or could complicate the recycling process.

Regarding what manufacturers should include on packaging, the Packaging Act sets minimum requirements for the information which should be provided on a packaging. This includes information about the composition of the packaging but not specific recycling symbols. In practice, this means that many manufacturers include recycling symbols voluntarily but are not legally obligated to do so.

Personally, I believe it would be beneficial if manufacturers were required to provide clearer recycling information on their products. This could help consumers better understand how to properly sort waste and what to do with it. However, until that happens, it’s up to us as consumers to educate ourselves and strive to sort waste in the best possible way.

Here are some pictures, can you explain to us what they mean?

Jiří: It’s important to reiterate that current legislation does not require mandatory information about how to handle packaging. This obligation applies only to packaging specified in waste, chemical, or pharmaceutical legislation. Therefore, it may happen that on a typical yoghurt cup, we may not always find information about the material it is made of or how to best handle it after consuming the contents. In such cases, the decision lies within the product manufacturers.

The Stick Figure and Trash Can: a label that indicates that this waste can be disposed of in the usual way (that the waste belongs to municipal/general waste). This is a symbol that is not mandatory (meaning that the packaging manufacturer is not required to include it). This symbol can also appear crossed out (indicating that it is hazardous waste and cannot be thrown into normal waste).

Picture source: pixabay.com

Recycling Triangle: The symbol can appear in two variations as shown in the image above. The triangle is usually accompanied by:

  1. The written abbreviation of the type of material.
  2. The number corresponding to the type of material.
  3. Both the written abbreviation and the number corresponding to the type of material.

Green Dot: This symbol indicates that a financial contribution has been made for the recovery and recycling of this packaging.

Selected Abbreviations

Material

Written abbreviation

Numerical abbreviation

Recyclability

Low-density polyethylene LDPE 04 yes
Oriented polypropylene OPP Unmarked yes
Polyethylene terephthalate PET 01 yes
Smooth cardboard PAP 21 yes
Paper and cardboard+plastic C/PAP 81 Any C/ symbol means that the material is to be disposed of with the mixed waste (beverage cartons are an exception)
Clear glass GL 70 yes
Brown glass GL 72 yes
Green glass GL 71 yes

If the glass containers are divided into two colors, we throw white glass into the white container and green and brown glass into the green container.

Who funds recycling, is it us? Shouldn’t the manufacturers be more involved in recycling and generally in everything related to waste? If that was the case, maybe they would think more about the amount of packaging used. Perhaps recycling technologies would also develop faster and more “eco” materials would be created, what do you think?

Jiří: For household electrical appliances, the recycling fee is already included in the selling price of the product. Ultimately, this fee is paid by the customer when purchasing the product. As for packaging, the situation is different. The packaging collection and recycling system in the Czech Republic is provided by the company EKO-KOM a.s. This company is financed by mandatory fees paid by manufacturers and importers of plastic packaging according to the law. Thanks to this, EKO-KOM has created an extensive and efficient network of collection containers.

What type of waste is there most of generally? What about mixed (municipal) waste? How is it most often handled and why?

Jiří: If we focus exclusively on municipal waste, the largest part of it is still mixed solid waste (MSW). Methods of managing mixed solid waste vary in different EU countries. Basically, there are two main treatment methods: energy recovery and permanent landfilling. According to the hierarchy of waste management established by the EU directive, the energy recovery of waste takes precedence over its disposal in a landfill. This rule applies, however, provided that it is technically and economically feasible. This condition is not further specified, so the rate of MSW energy utilization in individual countries depends on the waste policy of the given state.

In the Czech Republic, approximately 20% of MSW is used for energy purposes. In contrast, in countries such as Denmark and Switzerland, the figure is around 80%. Sweden is at the top in the amount of MSW used for energy, as it uses more MSW than it produces itself and therefore imports waste from abroad for these purposes.

The low rate of energy utilization of waste in the Czech Republic is a consequence of the state’s long-term negative attitude towards this method of processing. This attitude was influenced by factors such as the high investment requirement of waste-to-energy facilities (ZEVO) or the pressure of various environmental and lobby groups. That being said, the situation could change in the near future, as the new Waste Act is more supportive of energy recovery as a method of processing MSW. Currently, several projects are being prepared for the construction of waste-to-energy facilities.

Could you please describe the process of landfilling? What is the biggest problem?

Jiří: Waste can be a source of energy. Yet landfilling is still the most common way of dealing with waste in the Czech Republic, even though it essentially means wasting valuable resources. Nearly 80% of all mixed solid waste ends up in landfills, and this proportion is even increasing slightly.

During the landfilling of organic matter, which makes up the majority of waste, many complex chemical reactions occur. Hydrocarbons (so-called landfill gases) are released into the atmosphere, and seepage water with toxic leachates are formed, which penetrate into the earth’s crust and subsequently seep into groundwater. Landfills occupy a large amount of land, and landfill fires are not uncommon. Once closed, landfills become a long-term environmental hazard. The argument that these are always secured landfills is not convincing.

In view of these problems, the European Union, and later the Czech Republic, have come to the conclusion that landfilling:

  • Is the least suitable way of dealing with waste from an environmental and economic point of view since the material and energy resources contained in the waste is lost.
  • Is unsustainable for the future in terms of sustainable development.

The European Union requires its member states to drastically reduce waste landfilling according to a precisely defined schedule and quantity, especially concerning biodegradable solid waste. However, the Czech Republic is not reducing the amount of waste landfilled, and it does not meet the obligations arising from Directive 1999/31/EC on waste landfills. Due to the non-compliance with this directive, the Czech Republic faces possible sanctions from the European Commission.

Even though landfilling is slowly on the decline, harmful substances can be released into the environment during this process, right? Can it be prevented and what kind of substances are they? What will happen to a landfill in, say, 50 to 100 years?

Jiří: Landfilling of waste in the Czech Republic is governed by current legislation, which refers to technical standards. These standards specify in detail the information and conditions related to the construction, operation, security, drainage, and monitoring of landfills. As long as everything at the landfill is operated in accordance with the requirements of these Czech technical standards, there should be no impact on the surrounding landscape, especially by leachates.

The quality of water in the vicinity of landfills is regularly monitored using wells. However, the question remains as to what would happen in case of high concentrations of harmful substances in a certain area near the landfill. Based on my research and consultations with landfill operators so far, I have not received a clear answer yet. It has rather been hinted to me that such a situation should simply not occur.

During the landfilling of municipal waste, where about 30% of the waste is biodegradable material, decomposition processes occur, producing landfill gas containing approximately 50% methane. Holes are drilled into the body of the landfill to vent this gas to a cogeneration unit, where it is used to generate electricity.

According to the Waste Act, the operator of the landfill must ensure subsequent care of the landfill from their own financial reserves for at least 30 years after its closure.

What is ERVOeco technology? To me it seems like a miracle, is that right, or am I missing something?

Jiří: Honestly, I am a big enthusiast and I am always interested in new technologies. Before I form my ownt opinion about any technology, however, I need as much detailed information about its operation as possible. It’s even better when I can see it in action.

In a situation where the Czech Republic is not capable of introducing and operating even tested and highly efficient technologies like ZEVO, I consider it unrealistic that the ERVOeco technology could be realistically implemented here in the next 10 years.

It should also be noted that this technology is patented, and information about the waste processing method and processes in this unit are so restricted that it is difficult to objectively assess the technology. Especially when the only reviewer is the inventor and seller himself, which can seem almost too miraculous. From the available information on their website, I understand that the technology is based on thermal decomposition of waste material without the presence of oxidizing agents, which is essentially pyrolysis. (Pyrolysis is a thermal decomposition of materials (waste) into (gas, oil, carbon…) with very little to no oxygen at very high temperatures.)

Jirka, thank you very much for the interview, I look forward to the next one.?

Author

  • Ing. Žaneta Milošová (Havírová)

    She does what she enjoys – works as CEO of GreenScan. She studied at Technical University of Ostrava, where she got a master’s degree in Environmental engineering. She always cared about nature and things around it. She loves mountains, forests, animals and embraces modernity as well. That’s why she tries to look for a balance between nature and modern world.

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