Recycling is one of the most important industries of our time. The use of raw materials in many industries is inherently unsustainable and as more people become aware of the need to change this, the demand for recycled materials is rising.
Plastic recycling in particular has had a bit of a controversial history. While many cities have provided facilities to segregate plastic for recycling, the vast majority of that plastic still ends up in a landfill, and it appears that to a significant extent, plastic recycling was more of an empty gesture than a committed approach to dealing with the issue of waste.
Now though, there are numerous upcoming and innovative developments in recycling technologies, and the future looks brighter. We’re going to take a look at some of them after some brief context.
The History of Recycling
Recycling in its most basic form, as a response to scarcity, has been around for as long as people have made things. Using old pottery for roads in ancient Rome, or reconstituting paper in Japan in the 9th century are all forms of recycling. World War 2 created a huge demand for arms and parachutes, recycled from inner-city railings and household bedsheets, respectively.
The modern awareness of environmental destruction created a new demand for recycled materials. Green movements began in the ‘70s when climate change became a talking point. The concepts of pollution and waste management grew in the public consciousness.
The first mandatory recycling law was passed in the ‘80s in New Jersey, in response to growing amounts of waste, and by 1995, many of the recyclable materials in the US are banned from landfills.
While metal and glass have been commonly recycled for a long time, plastic recycling has a history of being considered a very low priority when it comes to recycling, due to the expense and difficulty involved in procuring, sorting, and cleaning it. Unfortunately, plastic is almost all non-biodegradable and builds up in the environment to a toxic level, so advances in plastic recycling tech cannot come soon enough.
Fortunately, there are new methods being developed all the time, and the current state of plastic recycling technology is looking much better than before. The trajectory of plastics recycling also looks promising, with bright ideas and developments just around the corner.
The Current State of Plastic Recycling Technology
There are numerous methods of plastic recycling, some better than others, and each has a cost to reward ratio that affects its implementation. Here are some of the current ways plastic is recycled:
- Currently, almost every plastic recycling method involves remelting the sorted plastic into new forms. This is known as mechanical recycling. The trouble with this is that it can sometimes degrade the polymers in the plastic, a detrimental effect on the final product’s integrity.
- A very basic form of recycling is the burning of plastic to create energy in the replacement of fossil fuels. This may solve the problem of waste plastic but it doesn’t do much to address the issue of emissions.
- A more innovative approach is to reduce the plastic back into its chemical components and rebuild it from scratch. This is done by applying heat or certain chemical processes and is called feedstock recycling. It shows a lot of promise for recycled plastic in applications that require 100% plastic integrity.
- Some companies like Arqlite reduce plastic waste by recycling it directly into inert materials for use in construction or landscaping. Arqlite takes 100% non-recyclable food packaging and turns it into “Smart Gravel”; a material that has numerous applications, including as a hydroponics substrate or a replacement for aggregates in concrete.
- Other companies are melting down plastic bottles to make fibers for clothing. Patagonia claims to use recycled plastic in their polyester clothing, transforming “trash into fleece.”
Plastic recycling technology still has a way to go, but there are some interesting developments on the horizon.
The Future of Recycling Technology
As of now, the future of plastic recycling tech looks to be going in three directions:
1. Improvements in chemical recycling methods.
Currently, the chemical recycling methods available to us are resource-intensive, and this often makes it cheaper to create new plastic than to recycle the old. However, developments in the chemical recycling process are reducing these costs.
Research into the catalysts that allow for the high temperatures required while bringing energy costs down is an important area of exploration in this regard. This research has demonstrated that in one chemical recycling process, alkaline hydrolysis, the addition of a specific catalyst reduced the temperatures required from >200°C to between 70°C and 90°C while maintaining a 99.6% purity and a 93% yield.
This has huge implications for the efficiency of the chemical recycling process.
2. Advancements in the Range of Plastic that’s Recyclable
Typically plastic like that from plastic bags and food waste often ends up in a landfill because they’re either not easy to separate and clean, or they contain multiple different types of plastic and thus can’t be separated.
With advancements in the pyrolysis recycling technique, these mixtures of plastics can be heated in a container to high temperatures, reducing them to an oil-like liquid and separating into fractions containing their different plastics.
New pyrolysis plants are operating in Spain, Franc, the Netherlands, and the UK has opened the first commercial plant able to recycle all kinds of plastic. This plant can handle plastics of all colors and types and at any stage of degradation. This is a very promising innovation for the future of plastics recycling.
Some of the most intriguing developments in the removal of plastic waste come from bioengineering fields. When Japanese scientists discovered a strain of bacteria eating plastic at a recycling plant in 2016, it sparked a wave of research into the phenomenon and a rush to genetically engineer a version of this bacteria or the enzyme it uses to digest plastic, to make it more efficient at doing so.
This technology is still years away from practical use but scientists have isolated and modified an enzyme called PETase that is now capable of breaking down PET plastic into its basic monomers. Then, it’s even possible to convert one of these monomers into vanillin, the major flavor component of vanilla.
This avenue of research shows a lot of promise and has exciting implications for not only plastic recycling but also microbiology, gene research, and organic chemistry in general.
Plastic recycling has had a slow and dubious start, despite it being one of the more critical issues in the recycling needs of our world. While it has a history of stagnation, the rise of awareness of the dangers of microplastics and the over-exploitation of our fossil fuels and raw materials has led to a surge in recycling technology for plastics.
From crushing and melting plastics into clothing or construction materials, to chemically or biologically breaking them down into their component pieces, plastic recycling has advanced significantly in the last decade. The future of plastic recycling tech is looking bright.
And this couldn’t happen soon enough. With countless tons of plastic being dumped into our oceans every year, and even more being degraded in landfills into toxic particles that enter our water supply, the need for plastic recycling has never been higher.