The current recycling infrastructure based on the co-mingled collection system is falling out of favour due to the well-documented inefficiencies of bundling all the different types of materials together for convenience and then attempting to separate them later in the system.
More and more countries are reverting back to the older recycling model of a multi-stream system where the consumer is expected to separate the recyclable materials as the waste is generated. The evidence from European countries operating under this model shows the real recycling rates do increase using this system, but expecting consumers to understand what materials go in which bin can be confusing and errors are made which introduces contamination into the material streams and can prevent entire collections from being recycled.
We live in an ever more complex technological world, but our recycling systems are based on models that are decades old – so what emerging technologies are set to change this landscape, particularly in the field of plastics where consumer confusion and material recovery struggle the most?
In the recycling hierarchy of Reduce, Re-use, Recycle, Energy Recovery and Disposal, reduction and re-use of our used-materials is of course the optimum goal and causes the least environmental impact. With the single-use disposable society we currently live in, re-use is not an option for many plastics. The realistic goal is for used plastic materials to be remanufactured into a new product with the same or similar value to the original. This process is called closed-loop recycling.
Recycling is typically subdivided into two categories - mechanical and chemical.
Mechanical Recycling, ReCircle and its Competition
Mechanical recycling is the process of collecting, sorting, cleaning and processing recyclable materials to enable them to be re-introduced into a manufacturing process. This term describes the established process used in the current recycling infrastructure, as well as the alternative infrastructure model proposed by ReCircle.
In addition to the current infrastructure, there are a lot of players in the new recycling landscape such as Terracycle, PlanetArk andRedCycle whose focus is the hard to recycle materials that are omitted in the current system. Cigarette filters, disposable pens, plastic gloves, print cartridges, packaging films and plastic bags are reprocessed by these organisations, typically into outdoor furniture, pallets or other coarse products. Some manufacturers are also making partnerships to meet their product end of life recycling responsibilities by teaming up with these organisations to process hard to recycle items, such as the partnership between Nestle, Terracycle and PlanetArk to recycle single serve coffee pods.
These organisations are complimentary to the current infrastructure and the ReCircle model.
The competitor in mechanical recycling for ReCircle is the current established infrastructure that collects and processes the contents of the curb side recycling bin(s) whether multi-stream or co-mingled.
Used-materials such as glass, aluminium and steel can be mechanically close-loop recycled at 100% content levels making the same items indefinitely. However, plastic, paper and cardboard have limitations due to the nature of the material and can only be recycled on average seven times before all of the original material is used up due to processing losses and degradation of the original material properties.
Chemical recycling is emerging as a possible solution to resolve this issue in regards to plastics with emerging technologies from organisations such as Loop Industries in Canada, IBM in the US and gr3n in Europe.
These commercial chemical recyclers typically use a variation on the process of glycolysis where the plastic (polymer) is subjected to heat and pressure in the presence of a catalyst to depolymerise it back into its base monomers. These monomers are purified before being repolymerised back into plastic that is indistinguishable from a virgin material derived directly from oil.
Theoretically the process can deal with any degree of contamination, allowing the plastic element to be extracted from items such as old carpets with the final polymer at a high enough quality for it to be upcycled to use for food grade items.
The organisations mentioned earlier and others at the forefront of this system have currently established pilot plants and are working to increase to a fully industrial scale.
Although the proponents of the systems claim to be able to operate with any level of feedstock contamination, to be profitable on a large scale the systems need to work at a certain level of efficiency. A certain amount of monomer needs to be extracted per tonne of feedstock. In reality this means just processing heavily contaminated feedstock is unlikely to be viable. The cleaner and less contaminated the material being fed into the system, the more efficient and therefore profitable the process becomes.
For this reason, Chemical recycling becomes a complimentary rather than a competitive system to plastic mechanical recycling and is likely to be used as a final purification step to bring plastic recycling to a similar potential as glass and metals.
To ultimately replace expensive, inefficient kerbside collections and move to higher recycling levels and reclamation, ReCircle offers an appliance for home or business that sorts, washes, grinds and compacts recycling into pure materials for resale. ReCircle will then collect and sell these pure, high-quality, high-value materials to manufacturers. It’s the world’s first closed-loop recycling appliance.
By ensuring complete segregation of different plastics, glass and metals, the appliance is designed to produce recycled materials of superior quality which command a premium price point.
You can help us develop a closed-loop recycling system designed to meet the requirements of the must-have circular economy. View our equity crowdfunding campaign on CrowdCube to find out more. Investments of this nature carry risks to your capital. Please Invest Aware.