Technological watch

VTT-led research project aims to find ways to recover, recycle river plastic waste profitably

A research project led by VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland aims to discover whether there is a way to cost-effectively recover and recycled plastic waste in rivers. Plastic waste floating in waterways quickly drifts far away from its original location, which makes it difficult and expensive to recover. Moreover, without a clear owner of the problem, there is no-one to take responsibility for recovering this waste.

Jakarta, Indonesia was chosen as the testing ground.

The project shows that this is indeed feasible if the plastics waste is recovered before reaching the sea. Also, if it is in the interest of nearby residents, officials, and businesses, the motivation for recovery is higher.

The two-year Kelmuvex project seeks to develop a recycling concept which would allow the floating waste rafts in the river to be recovered at a reasonable cost and recycled into valuable materials.

In Jakarta, the pilot area, PET bottles and durable propylene products, such as pipes and containers, are recycled, but other plastic waste either ends up in landfills with other mixed waste, or is washed into rivers, and further into the sea.

“In Jakarta we are looking at the amount, quality, and location of waste floating in the river and studying options to identify the waste from the air. We are working together with Finnish companies to develop and test methods to enable the recovery of floating plastic waste from the river and to utilize it as a raw material for construction materials and fuels, for example. Our goal is to develop circular economy concepts that suit local conditions and which can also be applied in other key locations with floating waste issues," says Mona Arnold, Principal Scientist at VTT.

Turning river litter into plastic composites and diesel fuel

The local actors involved in developing waste management in Jakarta are taking part in the Kelmuvex project; it is funded by Business Finland, VTT and four other Finnish members of the project consortium: Lamor, is an expert in mechanical oil-spill response technology; RiverRecycle develops technologies for collecting and removing floating waste, as well as recycling concepts. Wimao supplies technology for recycling plastic waste and Valmet technology for the process industry.

The varied composition of floating waste makes it difficult to utilize. Optical sensor solutions that can be installed in a drone or in a fixed location are utilized for the identification and monitoring of the floating waste to support the recovery operations.

Different plastic recycling methods will also be assessed according to type of plastic recovered.  Mechanical recycling is one of the options being investigated, as is chemical recycling via pyrolysis, for plastic waste that is dirty and difficult to sort.

Quality of the waste and recycling method aside, the profitability of a recycling plant relies on having access to sufficient waste volumes. Collaboration with local waste management is essential. The project will include finding ways to source locally collected plastic waste, which is normally landfilled.

“As waste management develops, the focus could shift from waste rafts on rivers to the utilization of land-based plastic waste. Most important is that the developed circular economy concept will support regional reduction of waste," said Arnold.

Publication date: 14/01/2021

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This project has been co-funded with the support of the LIFE financial instrument of the European Union [LIFE17 ENV/ES/000438] Life programme

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Last update: 2022-01-31