Does recycling have a future? And can it really solve our waste problem? Aldous Hicks, CEO and Co-founder of ReCircle Recycling discusses the issue.
The waste industry has become a fantastic, high-volume throughput industry ‒ removing waste quickly, efficiently, hygienically, regularly and cheaply ‒ making it an efficient and cheap alternative to a failed high-cost recycling system. Long-term, however, throwing products/packaging into landfill or the ocean is a waste of resources and pollutes the environment. To compete, the recycling industry needs to transition from a high-volume throughput industry to one focusing on high-purity.
Achieving 100% Closed-loop Recycling
Currently, even when used-materials are recycled, they tend to be made into ‘lesser’ products. A plastic bottle may be processed into pack tape for example which are then disposed of in landfill. So, even when recycling does happen, it often only delays the inevitable.
A truly green initiative, however, would be to move towards a 100% closed-loop recycling system: a system where a recyclable product is transformed back into its original form. A plastic bottle would be remade into a plastic bottle or an item of equal value many times before its disposed of.
Separating mixed plastics, however, is difficult and expensive even on an industrial scale and even a small amount of the wrong type of plastic can cause an entire batch to become contaminated. Just .05 kg of PVC plastic within 1,000 kg of PET flakes can cause it to become brittle and yellowish in colour.
Education has only gone so far. People are more familiar with recycling practices than ever, yet the majority are still confused or unsure over which items can be recycled.
As such, the contamination issue has, to-date, been insurmountable for the recycling industry. So, while I think we will have a 100% closed-loop recycling system in the next 20 years, there are several other technologies and processes to be implemented before closed-loop recycling is achievable. These will tackle the issue from both sides, empowering consumers while developing the capabilities of the de-manufacturing economy.
The De-Manufacturing Economy
We predict that within 10 years, the businesses of the world, starting with the fast moving consumer goods companies, will be able to deliver on their extended producer responsibility (EPR).
This means that all product prices will include the environmental costs of used-packaging being sent to landfill. If the product’s used-packaging is identified and closed-loop recycled the EPR will be delivered. EPR will incentivise more sustainable production practices, product longevity and maximise close-loop recyclability.
EPR legislation has been pushed since the mid-1990s. However, the difficulty in identifying if EPR has been delivered for a product’s packaging has not been possible to date. The introduction of new technology will both identify the packaging and via closed-loop recycling deliver EPR. Once operating, EPR legislation can be enacted.
Within 20 years, we predict that there will be a closed-loop recyclability index (CLR) displayed on every product, indicating both the sustainability of the manufacturing process and the cash value of the packaging once recycled. Just like ingredient contents in food, the CLR will influence a consumer’s purchasing decision.
All this will drive change in consumer purchasing behaviours, promote the growth of the de-manufacturing industry, and help to reduce de-manufacturing costs. By 2039, the de-manufacturing economy will approach the same level of employment as the financial services industry and will employ as many designers and robot operators as the manufacturing industry.
People are now more aware than ever about the effect their waste has on the environment and innovative new technologies are offering solutions to key environmental challenges.
However, recent documentaries, such as the BBC’s Blue Planet II, have demonstrated just how far we still have to go when it comes to recycling. Many people now no longer trust curbside collection and are feeling paralysed about what else they can do.
The simple answer is to let the public take a more active part in the recycling process. Instead of confusedly separating items and hoping for the best, consumers should be empowered to guarantee 100% correct segregation of different plastics, for example, and ensure they are delivered to manufacturers in a pure form, ready for closed-loop recycling.
In fact, by delivering high-purity materials back to manufacturers, consumers could benefit directly from the high value of these materials. Government schemes encouraging the purchase of recycled materials will assist further.
This is where technological innovations, like ReCircle, will play a major role. ReCircle is an appliance for home or business that will use a sensor to identify and guarantee the correct separation of different plastic, glass, metal, etc. The appliance will then wash and grind the materials for separate storage in the base. The high-purity materials are then picked up and the consumer reimbursed for the weight of recycled materials.
Such appliances are a key step towards achieving 100% closed-loop recycling and help empower households and businesses to make purchasing decisions which take into account the product’s life cycle assessment and closed-loop recyclability.
In 20 years, every individual, business, hospital, factory, building site, bar and restaurant, education institute, airport and any other venue in the world will take responsibility for the separation and cleaning of their recyclable material. On an individual level, required purity then becomes easily achievable, allowing the industry to benefit from valuable, high-purity closed-loop recyclable materials.
A number of existing technologies will be re-engineered to help both industrial and consumer recyclers. We predict that these technologies will focus on improving the ease and affordability of high-purity recycling.
The first and arguably most important innovation we be a further and continuing reduction in the cost and size of material sensors. Currently, sensors are relatively expensive because they can sense multiple substances. Exception sensors, detecting one substance only, will be smaller, simpler and when mass-produced very much cheaper.
Next, we need to reduce the size of the grinding, granulating and compacting equipment. Smaller equipment means more compact appliances allowing consumers to process their recycling in their own home or business.
With closed-loop recycling at home, the current efficient home delivery and pick-up services will be adapted to include bespoke equipment that will individually empty and weight each of the separately stored recycled products.
On-demand home delivery and pick-up services have improved in performance and cost, due to the improved technology and logistic systems developed by companies like Amazon and Uber. The application of this technology and processes to on-demand recycling collection will delivered lower costs and therefore greater value to closed-loop recycled products.
This is an exciting time for the waste management industry as it transitions from an efficient high-volume throughput industry and becomes an industry focused on high purity.