Recycling – the Future

Created: Monday, April 29, 2019, posted by Geetesh Bajaj at 10:00 am

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By Aldous Hicks, CEO and Co-founder of ReCircle Recycling Ltd

Recycling is a growth industry.  It is projected that by 2020 the global market will reach £30bn.  This is nearly double the size in 2015 when it was £18bn.

Despite the growth of the industry and many good intentions, the true value of recyclable materials is not being realized. Cross-contamination of plastics and dirty packaging means that over half the items going into the recycling bin aren’t recycled.

The waste industry has become a fantastic, high-volume throughput industry. It removes our waste quickly and hygienically, making it an efficient and cheap alternative to a failed high-cost recycling system. Long-term, however, throwing packaging and products into a landfill or the sea is a waste of resources and pollutes the environment. To compete, the recycling industry needs to transition from a high-volume throughput industry to having a focus on high-purity.

Recyclable materials are very valuable in their pure state but the cost and difficulty of separating mixed recycling make it uneconomical. With mounting public and government pressure, something needs to change to stem the tide of used packaging and products ending up in a landfill.

Let’s look at how the recycling industry can make the most of technology and adapt.

Getting to 100% Closed-loop Recycling

Currently, when used-materials are recycled, they tend to be made into ‘lesser’ products. A plastic bottle, for example, may be processed into pack tape for example which is then disposed of in landfill. So, even when recycling happens, it often only delays the inevitable.

A truly green initiative, however, would move towards a 100% closed-loop recycling system. That is, a system where a recyclable product is transformed back into its original form e.g. a plastic bottle is remade into a plastic bottle or an item of equal value many times before it’s disposed of.

Separating mixed plastics, however, is difficult and expensive even on an industrial scale and a small amount of the wrong type of plastic can contaminate an entire batch. 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. Despite increased familiarity with recycling practices majority of people in the West are still 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 that in 20 years’ we’ll have a 100% 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.

The De-Manufacturing Economy

We predict that within 10 years, the businesses of the world, starting with FMCG, 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. 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. Just like ingredient contents in food, the CLR will influence a consumer’s purchasing decision and further educate the public.

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 Power of the Consumer

Over the 10-20 there’s been a green revolution. 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, demonstrate just how far we still have to go when it comes to recycling. Many people no longer trust curbside collection but don’t know 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.

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.

Appliances like ReCircle 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.

Tech Innovation

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 will 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. More compact appliances will allow consumers to process their recycling in their own home or business.

Imagine a world in which nearly all used-materials will be 100% closed-loop recycled.  We are on our way to achieving this.

Aldous Hicks
Aldous Hicks is the CEO and Co-founder of ReCircle Recycling Ltd. Aldous has over 30 years of business experience as a technology and software developer, project manager and mechanical engineer, including developing water and material recycling technology. He developed SOHO custom PC database software and prior to that worked with Mannesmann Demag AG, a multi-national German mechanical heavy engineering company.

Aldous has now turned his attention and expertise to the recycling economy, founding ReCircle to create a solution that will empower consumers while reversing the unsustainable and inefficient recycling system.

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