Feature Report: Waste Recovery

4 items of content in this feature report



Recycling - Garbage Cans Full of Potential

Four million metric tons of household waste are produced worldwide every day. Europe contributes 500,000 metric tons – an average of one kilogram per European each day. Around a third of this waste is packaging made from various materials, such as glass, paper and cardboard, aluminum, steel and plastic, so sorting and processing these items is essential for our environment.

fr- Le recyclage : des poubelles pleines de ressources
A municipal waste sorting line for recycling. © THINKSTOCK

22%: France's plastic waste recycling rate, ranking it 25th in Europe.

Recycling packaging

The best solution is recyclingAny waste treatment process that uses materials from identical or similar end-of-life products or manufacturing waste to produce new products. , because it can be used to regenerate materials and manufacture different types of products while saving resources. Alternatively, some waste can be incinerated and recovered as energy. Landfill is the least favorable option (aside from simply dumping waste outside, of course).

In May 2018, the European Union set specific new targets fo the recycling of packaging: 65% by 2025 and 70% by 20301.

In France, the recycling rate of household waste reached 68% in 2016, varying widely by material2.

  • Glass can be recycled in the form of unbroken bottles or broken glass. Intact bottles are sorted and cleaned in sorting centers. They can then be reused directly. Broken glass in bulk is stripped of its impurities and crushed. The crushed glass, or cullet, is then melted at a temperature of 1,550°C along with other materials such as sand, sodium and limestone. The resulting mixture is used to manufacture new bottles and other items. In France, 86% of glass was recycled in 2016, a rate that has remained stable since 2012.
  • Paper and cardboard are compacted into bales in the sorting center and then pulped with water in a giant mixer. The paper fiber pulp is stripped of its impurities and ink. The pulp is then spun, drained and dried between heated cylinders. After final treatment, large rolls of recycled paper are ready for use. About 40% of the paper used worldwide is recycled paper. The recycling rate for paper and cardboard in France was 65% in 2016.
  • Steel is recovered mostly from food cans, which are crushed in a press in the sorting center and converted into large cubes. The cubes are then sent to a steelworks, where they are smelted at a temperature of 1,500°C in a blast furnace before being integrated into the usual steel manufacturing process. Steel can also be remanufactured from clinker generated by the incinerationTechnique used to convert waste into energy. The waste is burned, producing heat, power or both. of other waste, meaning that it is essentially recycled at a rate above 100%.
  • Aluminum is contained in drink cans, food trays, spray cans and other everyday items. In sorting centers, these types of packaging are separated and impurities are removed. They are then smelted in high-temperature furnaces and the molten metal that results is used to manufacture aluminum alloy ingots, rolls and foil that are reintegrated into the manufacturing process. In 2016, the recycling rate for aluminum was 43% (32% in 2012).

What about Plastic?

Germany sends virtually no plastic to landfill, whereas France still dumps nearly 40%

In Europe, the processing of used plastic has been steadily improving for ten years. Between 2006 and 2016, the total volume of waste collected increased by 11%, a clear indicator of the work put in by local authorities and improving consumer engagement. Dumping plastic outside leads to serious marine pollution, since a good deal of abandoned waste ends up in the ocean.

During the same period, the volume of plastic recycled increased by 79% and the volume incinerated rose by 61%, according to studies by Plastic Europe3. Furthermore, the volume sent to landfill – the least favorable solution – dropped by 43%. 2016 was the first year when more waste was recycled than sent to landfill.

Out of 30 European countries surveyed, France is among the lowest ranking. Its recycling rate of 22.2% put it in 25thplace. Admittedly, the country performs better when the rate of incineration is taken into account (65.7% of waste recovered in total, bringing it to 15thplace). Given these figures, France's goal of recycling 100% of plastic by 2025 seems unrealistic. 

In Europe, the packaging sector accounts for about 63% of end-of-life plastic. The first step in the recycling process is to collect these materials. They are then sorted by type, as their different chemical compositions make it impossible to use them together in the same new product. The following must be separated:

  • PVC (polyvinyl chloride), found in pipes, windows, gloves and other items;
  • PET (polyethylene terephthalate), found in drink bottles, food trays and other items. In Europe, collection of PET bottles is on the rise, with about 40% currently recycled;
  • HDPE (high-density polyethylene), found in articles such as milk bottles, cleaning products and their packaging.

Once sorted, the plastic is crushed, washed and dried to obtain pellets, powder or flakes of high-quality or pure resin. In this way, a plastic water bottle can be recycled to make seven smart cards. 



(1) See the European Council decision

(2) See Eco-emballages’ annual report (in French only)

(3) Plastics-Europe - Facts 2017