20.11.2020 BlogThe smart waste factory is coming! A chat with Professor Roland Pomberger at Recy & Depotect 2020

We had a virtual chat on the direction of the waste management industry with professor Roland Pomberger, the Head of the Department of Waste Recycling and Waste Management at the University of Leoben in Austria at Recy&DepoTech 2020 which is one of the most notable waste management and recycling conferences in Austria and the German-speaking region. Read his views on ongoing developments in the waste management industry and how machines will increasingly communicate with material at “smart waste factories”.

Professor Roland Pomberger has witnessed the evolution of waste management since the 1990s both from within the industry and from a bird’s eye perspective in academia. Before joining the University of Leoben in 2011, professor Pomberger held a long career in charge of research and development at Saubermacher Dienstleistungs AG, a leading Austrian and Middle-European waste management company. 

What are among the biggest drivers of development in the waste management industry?

European regulations on required recycling rates set challenging targets for different waste streams for Austria and other countries in the EU. For example, the 65% EU target for mixed municipal waste by 2035 is tough for many countries that still have a landfill based waste management system.

One of the biggest challenges at present is the recycling of plastic waste which has received widespread attention and it is part of the political process. The EU’s 55% target for the recycling of plastic packaging waste by 2030 is extremely challenging. In Austria, for example, the current recycling rate is 25% so the gap is still wide.

To reach this target, more collection and bigger and better sorting capacities are needed. Much of the technology used today is 20 years old so we will need new recycling plants with new technologies. In addition, we need a better functioning market for recycled materials so that materials such as granulates and flakes from recycled plastic are returned to the manufacturing of new products.

Where do you see the industry heading amid these changes?

I see an industrialization in the waste management industry taking place. There is a need for larger plants with bigger capacity, more throughput and higher quality recovery. New technologies like sensor-based sorting will be at the core of this.

We are headed towards a “smart waste factory”. Mixed waste is a challenge because the material is constantly changing and there can be anything in it so it is hard to describe the material. We are moving to the direction where digital technologies will be used to better understand the material in our plants, i.e. what kind of material and which fractions are coming in and out of the belt.

Communication between the material and the machine will increase. Sorting robots are a good example of this communication between the material and a machine. I see this communication extended to other parts of the plant as well in the future.

How do we get there?

These new technologies will require new recycling plants as well as new process concepts. The EU’s recycling objectives are clear, but it will take a while for us to get there on the national level. We need new business models that will decrease the payback times for investments into new plants.

To speed this transition, the EU can invest intelligently into sustainable business models. For example, the EU recovery fund for the Covid-19 pandemic targets projects that advance digitalization and green technologies. This will be an interesting driver to follow in the coming years.