Over the last 10-20 years the waste industry has changed radically. In Western world we’ve generally attempted to stop throwing everything into landfill and tried to take responsibility for collecting recyclable materials. Yet, despite our best intentions, the true value of recyclable materials is not being realised. Cross-contamination of plastics and dirty packaging means that over half of the items going into the recycling bin aren’t recycled. Contributor Aldous Hicks, CEO and Co-founder – ReCircle Recycling Ltd.
The waste industry has become a high-volume throughput industry, making it an efficient and cheap alternative to a failed high-cost recycling system. However, throwing packaging and products into landfill or the ocean is wasteful and polluting.
To compete, the recycling industry needs to transition from a high-volume throughput industry to one focusing on high-purity. Recyclable materials are very valuable in their pure state but the cost and difficulty of separating mixed recycling make it uneconomical.
What does the recycling industry need to do to become profitable and make a substantial contribution?
Closed-loop Recycling: 100 percent
Currently, even when used-materials are recycled, they tend to be made into ‘lesser’ products. A plastic bottle, for example, may be processed into packaging which ends up in landfill.
A truly green initiative, however, would be to move towards a 100 percent closed-loop recycling system. That is, a system where a recyclable product is transformed back into its original form or into an item of equal value many times before its disposed of.
Separating mixed plastics, however, is difficult and expensive 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.
Education has only gone so far. People are more familiar with recycling practices than ever, yet there is still confusion about which items can be recycled.
The contamination issue has, to-date, been insurmountable for the recycling industry. So, while I think that in the next 20 years we will have a 100 percent closed-loop recycling system, there are a number of other technologies and processes that need 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.
Impact of the De-Manufacturing Economy
We predict that within 10 years, the businesses of the world, starting with the FMCG 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. ReCircle 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 using an appliance like ReCircle. Just like ingredient contents in food, the CLR will influence a consumer’s purchasing decision.
These labels will help to further educate the public as to what can and cannot be de-manufactured, as well as identifying products that support the de-manufacturing industry.
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.
The general public has become educated on environmental issues. However, recent documentaries, such as the BBC’s Blue Planet II, have demonstrated how far we still have to go in terms of recycling. Many people now no longer trust curbside collection but feel paralysed about what else they can do.
The simple answer is to let people take a more active part in the recycling process. Instead of separating items and hoping for the best, consumers should be empowered to guarantee 100 percent correct segregation of e.g. different plastics, 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 will play a major role. ReCircle, for example, 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.
Appliances like this are a vital step towards achieving 100 percent closed-loop recycling. In 20 years, every individual, business, airport, hospital, factory, restaurant, education institute etc. will take responsibility for the separation and cleaning of recyclable material. On an individual level, required purity becomes easily achievable, allowing the industry to benefit from valuable, high-purity closed-loop recyclable materials.
Innovations in Technology
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 domestic closed-loop recycling, 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.
The technologies will continue to develop and thanks to AI, machine learning and robotics improve in performance, cost and efficiency. In combination with the circular economy and de-manufacturing, I foresee a world where nearly all used-materials will be 100 percent closed-loop recycled.