How Technology Is Revolutionising Recycling

Urbanisation has rapidly impacted our ecosystem and created damaging lasting effects for the future. Big cities are responsible for a large proportion of water and energy consumption. Many initiatives have been set forward in the hopes of reducing waste and our carbon footprint and encouraging recycling. However, the future of recycling may be revolutionised thanks to technology. Here are a few examples of how technology is impacting recycling.

The PP recycling approach, patented by Proctor & Gamble Co., is being licensed to PureCycle Technologies in order to launch a small-scale plant to open next year. It is a technology that promises to virtually remove all contaminates and colours from used plastics. This tech has the capacity to revolutionise the plastics recycling industry as it enables “P&G and companies around the world to tap into sources of recycled plastics that deliver nearly identical performance and properties as virgin materials in a broad range of applications” (Kathy Fish, CTO at P&G). This interest in plastic recycling is due to P&G having goals to double the amount of recycled resin used in plastic packaging by 2020.

At the moment, tons of low-density polyethylene (LDPE) products, e.g. plastic bags, are being irresponsibly thrown into recycling bins even though many recyclers do not want it because there is no market at the moment for the material. This is where BioCollection comes in. This start-up uses genetic engineering in a process that converts LDPE into chemical compounds that are useful in a variety of ways, such as emulsifiers, cleansers in cosmetics or textile manufacturing. Therefore, the company is producing sustainable biological products from previously unusable problematic mixed plastic waste. 

Cadel Deinking are also working on an innovative LDPE recycling process to remove the inks and colourings from plastic surfaces. Previously this ink was a big factor into the why LDPE’s were unrecyclable and the ink spoiled the recycled product both visually and in its mechanical properties. Once stripped of its colour the plastic is returned to its original state more suitable for recycling. The technology developed by Cadel Deinking involves grinding, deinking, rinsing, drying and creating pellets, all using solvent free water-based formulations.

Mixed-material packaging poses another problem for recycling as many places will not accept the packaging which is made up of tightly laminated layers of plastic, cardboard and aluminium foil. Saperatec have developed a technology that separates the adhesive bonds between these materials through shredding and a chemical bath. They have plans to open their first large scale centre by 2018 and hopes to recycle 18,000 metric tons of material each year. 

The impact of digitisation and the Internet of Things is already apparent in our everyday lives and has had implications for aspects of recycling such as waste management. Online and mobile purchases are growing sectors with studies showing that by 2018, 18% of all retail sales will take place online and this figure is set to rise to an overwhelming 95% by 2040. This means that less people are travelling to make their purchases as well as less need for the ‘middle man’ as purchases can be sent directly from the supplier to the consumer. This could also predict the shift from physical brick and mortar stores to online e-commerce spaces. Research by Carnegie Mellon’s Green Design Institute found that opting to shop online would result in a 35% reduction in energy consumption and CO2 emissions.

Underground bins may also become a huge player in the future of recycling. Underground chambers using sensors have already been introduced in Cambridge and have led to the disposal of around 9000 wheelie bins as one underground bin replaces around 20 wheelie bins, therefore creating a more efficient and less intrusive waste management process. Further technology can be implemented such as fill-monitoring systems to minimise the impact of collections on traffic and emissions. This project could revolutionise how we recycle and throw away materials, especially in urban cityscapes where the environment seems to become a second thought.

Enevo, a Finnish company, collect waste data using wireless sensors and other technology, such as sonar technology, to measure and forecast fill levels in waste containers resulting a more streamlined waste management operation. The data collected can help collection teams and early tests showed results of a 60% reduction in collection days. 

As we begin to become more environmentally conscious these technologically forward solutions to recycling will encourage more and more people to become more aware of their ecological footprint and start to care more for the planet. The impact of tech on this sector has only just begun and there is still a long way to go before we begin to see long term results and implications of the technology, but what we have now is a promising start.