Brain Challenge no. 5

Turning waste into resources: Are you up to the challenge?

The steady World population growth combined with the current economic boost suggests that levels of consumption will also increase, generating more and more waste. The amount of waste generated by European households each year represents roughly 60 million tonnes of fuel, or the equivalent of 1-and-a-half years of the entire fuel consumption of Denmark!

Challenge: Wanna be a hero? Well why don’t you come up with a bright solution to transform waste into valuable resources?

Supporting information: Reuse, Recycle, Recover

This article is intended to provide basic information to inspire you while preparing for the "Wanna be a Hero" competition. 

You might have heard the expression, “one man’s waste is another’s treasure”. This is truer today than ever. The growing awareness of the negative environmental effects of landfill (site for the disposal of waste materials by burial) means that everyone is searching for ways to keep waste out of the ground and put it to some useful purpose. This article will give you some ideas about how we can maximise the useful resources that are contained in waste, to enable you to come up with your own solutions.

Waste is too valuable to waste, or to be thrown away! This is very clear when we think about plastics, which can be thought of as solid oil. As oil prices continue to rise and concerns are raised about whether Europe can secure its own supply, every available energy carrier should be used to make us less dependent from imports; it is clear that we should make the best use possible of plastic products that have reached the end of their useful lives.

The three best options to consider are the three Rs: reuse, recycle, and recover. The qualities that make plastics so versatile and useful – light, strong, hardwearing etc. – mean that they fit all three of these options.

To take the first one, reuse: this is suitable for strong objects which have to withstand repeated use, such as crates, boxes, or pallets used in shipping products around the world. Can you think of other things to reuse that would save resources on an even bigger scale?

Recycling enables us to transform waste materials (plastics, metals etc.) into other valuable resources. This can be done in two ways: firstly by so-called mechanical recycling, where the material is converted back into the same material; and secondly, through a process called feedstock recycling. Feedstock recycling is a special process that can only be used for plastics. This process converts used plastics back into chemical building blocks (remember that plastics are solid oil), which can then be used for a variety of purposes.

Finally, energy recovery is a process that takes materials (objects, packaging, etc.) that would have otherwise been dumped in a landfill, and uses them to produce energy. Using waste to generate energy means we can use less fossil fuels as an energy source, which saves precious natural resources. For some materials, energy recovery is an especially good option, and for all materials, energy recovery is better than landfill.

There are many different technologies to recover energy-from-waste. The most common method is to use special incinerators to burn the waste and generate heat and power. However there are other methods which are less common but also very valuable. A fuel rich fraction containing wood, paper and plastics, can be separated from waste streams and used as a substitute fuel. Can you think of how this recovered fuel can be used and of additional ways to save resources by using waste to generate energy?

Now that you have reviewed the basic information on the three Rs you can continue your quest to become a hero. Here are a few ideas to inspire you and to help you understand how to put these principles into practice…

  • Visit a landfill. Seeing for yourself the amount of materials that are discarded will most likely inspire you to reduce, reuse, recycle and recover.
  • Transform objects that have been discarded in your household. Make that empty detergent bottle into an outdoor planter by cutting it down and decorating the outside.
  • Set up an exhibition in your school of one-of-a-kind objects. Make art, not trash!
  • Learn about recovering energy-from-waste and see what steps your local government is taking to build municipal waste incineration plants, or to promote other energy recovery methods.
  • Talk to your friends and teachers. Set up a challenge to make them individually responsible for reducing waste and transforming it.
  • To reduce the amount of waste you produce, choose materials like plastics, which are versatile, lightweight and resource-efficient. Plastics can be recovered as a material and/or as energy at end-of-life.
  • Look at the trash bin at school; which items would you like to recycle?


For additional ideas and information