Although Americans do their part and dutifully put items into their recycling bins, much of it doesn’t actually end up recycled. According to the EPA, of the 267.8 million tons of municipal solid waste generated by Americans in 2017, only 94.2 million tons were recycled or composted. Just 8% of plastics were recycled, the same report stated.
There are many reasons for this sad state of affairs. Up until recently, the U.S. exported 16 million tons of plastic, paper, metal waste to China, essentially outsourcing much of its waste processing, passing the responsibility to other countries. Some of this waste was incinerated by China to fuel its booming manufacturing sector, releasing toxic emissions in the process, while the rest end up in the countryside and ocean, contaminating the water, ruining crops, and affecting human health. But since 2018, China has banned the import of most plastics and other materials that were not up to very stringent purity standards. Without China’s market for plastic waste, the U.S. recycling industry has been caught with its pants down, woefully lacking in infrastructure.
Furthermore, recycling plastic is a major challenge even if the U.S. had a good recycling infrastructure and coherent federal strategy — recycling decision-making is currently in the hands of 20,000 communities, all of which make their own choices about whether they recycle and what gets recycled — due to contamination. Items placed in the wrong bin or food contamination can prevent large batches of material from being recycled and, as a result, a large portion of the waste placed into recycling bins has to be incinerated or discarded into landfills.
ByFusion, a startup from Los Angeles, wants to turn this problem into an opportunity. The company builds huge machines called Blockers that squeeze mounds of plastic into standard building blocks called ByBlocks. Each ByBlock is 16x8x8 inches and comes in three variations: flat, molded with pegs so they can be interlocked, or a combination of the two. According to Fast Company, ByBlocks are about 10 pounds (4.5 kg) lighter than hollow cement blocks.
The world loves to use plastic because it’s cheap and highly durable. The same appealing properties are a curse when plastic reaches the end of its lifecycle. But guess where else durability and low cost are prized? That’s right, the construction industry.
Virtually any kind of plastic, with the exception of Styrofoam, can be compressed into a ByBlock. “You [can] literally eat your lunch, throw in [the leftover plastic], make a block, then stick it in the wall,” Heidi Kujawa, who founded ByFusion in 2017, told Fast Company.
The only major drawback of ByBlocks is that they’re very susceptible to degradation due to sunlight, but this can be easily circumvented by coating their surface with paint or using another weather-resistant material. This was demonstrated in the city of Boise, Idaho, where residential plastic waste (grocery bags, bubble wrap, fast-food containers, etc.) was turned into building blocks used to erect a small building in a local park.
Since it began operation, ByFusion has recycled over 100 tons of plastic, with the lofty goal of scaling to 100 million tons by 2030. At the moment, there’s only one full production unit in L.A., which can process 450 tons of plastic a year, but the startup has partnered with Tucson and Boise, and plans to expand in the rest of the country. The aim is to have a Blocker machine in every city in the US, where they can be integrated with existing municipal waste processing facilities or even run by corporations that want to process their waste on-site.
That’s a commendable mission but with a price tag of $1.3 million for the largest Blocker machine, many willing stakeholders may simply not be able to afford this solution. On the other hand, plastic waste has its own, often hidden, costs, so doing nothing about it may actually prove more expensive as our plastic problem compounds over time.
Baleen whales eat a lot more food than previously assumed: three times as much, to be exact, according to new research. The findings are not meant to shame these animals into going on a diet. Rather, they shed light on the key ecological role whales play in the ocean.
The sheer size and appetite of whales make them important players in the ocean. In particular, they serve as key drivers of nutrient recycling in the ocean. They consume vast amounts of food, releasing important nutrients back into the water following digestion. A new paper refines our understanding of just how much food whales as a group can consume, and take a look at the ecological implications of the decline in whale numbers since the onset of the 20th century.
“While it may just seem like a fun trivia fact, knowing how much whales eat is an important aspect of ecosystem function and management,” Matthew Scott Savoca, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Stanford University and corresponding author of the paper, told ZME Science. “If we want to protect whales and make sure they are thriving in modern oceans, then knowing how much food they need to survive and reproduce is critical.”
“There are implicit benefits of having whales on the planet — isn’t it cool to think that we live at a time when we’re alongside the largest animal in the history of life on Earth? Beyond that, whales have direct value as carbon sinks (e.g., sequestering carbon in their bodies and exporting it to the deep sea when they die and sink – which we did not discuss in this study). In addition, whale watching is a multi-billion dollar per year global business that is expanding as whales are recovering.”
Previous estimates of just how much whales eat were built upon data obtained from metabolic models or direct analysis of the stomach contents of whale carcasses. Such data can give us a ballpark figure but, according to the new paper, they are quite inaccurate.
Savoca and his colleagues directly measured the feeding rates of 321 baleen whales across seven species in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Southern oceans. They tracked foraging behavior and estimated prey consumption by tracking the whales using GPS tags. Location data was then combined with sonar measurements of prey density, of the quantity of prey consumed per feeding, and current estimates of how much each species typically eats per feeding event.
Overall, the results suggest that we’ve underestimated how much food baleen whales ingest by a factor of three. On average, these animals consume between 5% and 30% of their body weight per day, depending on species, across all the investigated regions. In total, blue, fin, and humpback whales in the California Current Ecosystem consume over two million tonnes of krill every year per species.
The study also puts into perspective just how massive an impact whaling and other stressors have placed on whales and, by extension, on the ecosystems they inhabit. Prior to the 20th century, the team estimates, whales in the Southern Ocean were consuming around 430 million tonnes of Antarctic krill per year. This figure is twice the total estimated biomass of Antarctic krill today.
Whales, the paper explains, serve an important ecological role as nutrient recyclers, tying into that last tidbit of information. Prior to the 20th century, before whales were hunted in meaningful numbers, these animals consumed a massive amount of biomass, releasing much of the nutrients in their food back into the ocean as waste. This, in turn, allowed for much greater productivity in the ocean (as they made large quantities of nutrients freely-available for krill and other phytoplankton to consume).
“In brief, if whales eat more than we thought, then they also recycle more nutrients (i.e., poop) than we thought. If that is the case then limiting nutrients may have been used more effectively and efficiently in a system that had many more whales,” Savoca said for ZME Science. “It’s not that these whales add more iron (or other nutrients) to the system, they just [move] it from within the bodies of their prey, to in the seawater itself where it could, in theory, fertilize phytoplankton — the base of all open ocean food webs.”
To put things into perspective, the authors estimate that today, baleen whales in the Southern Ocean recycle around 1,200 tons of iron per year; prior to the 20th century, this figure was likely around 12,000 tons of iron per year. In essence, whaling has led to a 90% decrease in the amount of essential nutrients whales can recycle in their ecosystems.
I asked Savoca whether there is any overlap between the decline in baleen whale populations and the detrimental effects of industrial fishing on today’s ocean ecosystems. Should we expect trouble ahead as we’re removing key nutrient recyclers from one side of the equation, and taking more fish out of the sea on the other?
“You are hitting on a major issue,” he admitted. “We have noticed that oceans have become less productive after removing millions of large whales in the 19th and 20th centuries. The same is true of ongoing industrial fishing. The collapse of predatory fish communities have the same detrimental impacts on marine communities as the wholesale decimation of the whales did.”
“I am not against fishing, but we have to do so as sustainably as possible if we want to maintain essential ocean productivity into the future.”
Whales and their extended family — cetaceans — have been experiencing immense pressures ever since the onset of industrial-scale whaling in the early 20th century. Commercial whaling only slowed down in the 1970s, which is a very, very short time ago from an ecological perspective. This has allowed whales and other cetaceans some much-needed respite, but they are still struggling. Over half of all known cetacean species today are inching towards extinction, 13 of which are listed as “Near Threatened”, “Vulnerable”, “Endangered”, or “Critically Endangered” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. Besides the lingering effects of whaling, this family is still struggling under the combined effects of (chemical and noise) pollution, loss of habitat, loss of prey, climate change, and direct collisions with ships.
Research such as this study and many others before it can raise an alarm that not all is well with the whales. But actually doing something about it hinges on us and governments the world over taking the initiative to protect them. Understanding just how important whales are for the health of our oceans and, through that, for our own well-being and prosperity definitely goes a long way towards spurring us into action.
But Savoca’s conclusion to our email discussion left an impression on me. There is great beauty in natural ecosystems that we’re destroying, oftentimes unaware. Beyond the practical implications of conserving whale species, we have a chance to conserve these for our children and all future generations.
“I remember one day in Monterey Bay when we were surrounded by blue whales (likely over a dozen), each about twice the size of the boat we were on. I will also never forget the sound and scale of the ice in Antarctica,” Savoca wrote for ZME Science.
“My life’s work is devoted to making sure people and animals have these (and ideally ever better) ecosystems of awe and plenty well into the future.”
The paper “Baleen whale prey consumption based on high-resolution foraging measurements” has been published in the journal Nature.
While up to 85% of a wind turbine’s parts can be recycled, its blades have remained a constant thorn in the industry’s side. While that remaining 15% might not seem like a big deal, it’s worth remembering that wind turbines are behemoths, whose blades measure at least 40 meters nowadays and can weigh seven tones. We expect thousands of wind turbines to be decommissioned over the next few decades, so that translates to a lot of waste destined for landfills.
Although these blades are non-toxic and, technically speaking, safe for landfills, the lack of recycling options is seen as inherently incompatible with the wind industry’s commitment to sustainability and full circularity.
But all that may change for the better. This week, Siemens Games, one of the world’s leading wind turbine manufacturers, announced “the world’s first recyclable wind turbine blades ready for commercial use offshore,” an exciting move that may finally transition turbines close to 100% sustainability.
The company’s product, aptly dubbed RecyclableBlades, measures 81 meters (266 feet) in length and is made of composite lightweight materials cast together with a special resin. Once the blades are ready to be decommissioned at the end of their lifecycle, the resin can be separated from the components thanks to its specially designed chemical structure.
“This mild process protects the properties of the materials in the blade, in contrast to other existing ways of recycling conventional wind turbine blades,” according to a press release from Siemens Gamesa.
The first operating RecyclabeBlades are scheduled to be installed at the Kaski offshore wind power plant in Germany, a joint project with RWE Renewables that is excepted to be completed from 2022 onwards. The first six ReyclableBlades have already been manufactured at a factory in Aalborg, Denmark.
Conventional turbine blades are typically made out of a combination of balsa wood, carbon fiber, and glass, bound together by stiff resin. However, this glue is too powerful for its own good, and separating the components is very costly — to the point that isn’t economically feasible to do so.
Many wind turbines currently operating in Europe and elsewhere across the world are part of the first generation that was installed in the 1990s, and are now nearing the end of their lifetime. By 2030, as many as 6,000 individual wind turbines per year could be decommissioned, resulting in massive blade graveyards.
There’s not all that much we can do about these old blades. In some cases, they can be reused for new projects, but this is only viable for a small fraction of turbines. New technologies, such as those pioneered by Spanish startup Reciclalia, which eliminates organic matter and separates the glass and carbon fibers, are also useful.
By the end of this year, Reciclalia claims it will be able to recycle 1,500 blades a year. That’s actually pretty good, but going forward the next generation of recyclable blades will make this process a lot easier, cheaper, and hopefully cover close to 100% of newly installed wind energy projects.
Once separated from the composite material, the RecyclableBlades components won’t be suitable for new wind turbine blades as they won’t be able to withstand typhoon conditions. Instead, their technical and physical properties will make them suitable for the auto and boat industry, or even for consumer goods.
Based on estimates of new offshore wind projects, Siemens Games expects that more than 200,000 blades could now be recyclable until 2050. Other companies will likely follow suit. Vestas, another leading wind turbine manufacturer, said it aims to produce “zero-waste” turbines by 2040, while GE Renewable Energy recently signed a deal to recycle blades from onshore wind projects in the United States.
New research reports on an approach that could finally usher in energy-efficient plastic recycling, with massive implications for the industry and the environment both.
Plastics are, chemically speaking, long molecules made up mostly of carbon atoms strung together. This structure is what makes them so useful, as it imparts both good physical properties and outstanding chemical resilience to the material. But that last trait is also what makes plastics very resistant to being broken back down into carbon that can be used to make more plastic, or another product entirely.
Given that simply melting the plastic down to reuse it eventually degrades it so much it’s not really viable as a material, the high energy cost of transforming plastic back into carbon is, effectively, the death knell of our efforts to recycle this material and solve the plastic waste problem. But a new study could fix that.
“It’s difficult to build a house and it’s easy to smash it apart,” said Dionisios Vlachos, a professor of physics at the University of Delaware and lead author of the paper, for Inverse. “This is the reverse. Plastic is very easy to make and difficult to break apart.”
Millions upon millions of tons of plastic waste are generated, globally, every year. This ranges from materials used in containers or packaging to electronics and a huge range of consumable products. The problem is compounded by the fact that virtually all of that plastic was freshly produced from crude oil instead of from recycled plastics, since the processes we have of doing so are slow, inefficient, and thus, expensive. This high cost is why most recyclable plastics today are not recycled, and end up in the landfill.
The current study describes an approach that can make recycling processes cost-efficient. This would revert plastic to its chemical building blocks which can then be used to produce fresh plastics or items such as fuel. The approach involves undergoing the refining process ‘in reverse’, according to Vlachos. It relies on zeolite and platinum as catalysts (both of these are already heavily used in the plastic industry to produce it from crude oil). Both platinum and zeolite can help break down the long chemical chains that make up plastic, but neither can carry the process to completion by themselves. Put together at high pressure, however, the team found that the catalysts can completely degrade the plastic molecule.
The process effectively ‘cracks’ (a term used in the oil industry) the long polymer chains into shorter, ‘short-C’ chains, that are much easier to process. In essence, the process does exactly what you want plastic to not do normally: break down, fast. Increasing pressure during this process allows for the plastic to be broken down efficiently even at low temperatures, the team explains, which helps further bring costs down.
“This is the first technology that’s able to take the most difficult plastics and recycle them into something really useful,” Vlachos added. “It’s the best way to recycle single-use plastics and packaging like polyethylene and polypropylene.”
In effect, the platinum catalyst starts the cracking reaction, which is then completed by the zeolite. This results in high yields of liquid hydrocarbons (oil) and a small quantity of solid byproducts. Currently, the process has a yield of around 85% of the original material by weight. Virtually all the major types of plastic in use today can be recycled using this approach, the team explains, including plastic bags and bottles (PET), HDPE, PP, polystyrene (PS), even layered (PP-PE-PS) plastic composites.
Different ratios of the two catalysts can be used to change the type of product that is output. This essentially would allow engineers to produce raw materials for a wide range of products simply by adding more of either compound.
Currently, however, the process does require quite a lot of water. Around 150 liters of water are required to make a gallon (3.8 liters) of gasoline. This will probably be improved upon in the future.
Right now, the technology has been patented, and Vlachos says we could expect its successful commercialization within 5 to 10 years. One of the main hurdles before that happens is developing a failproof method of eliminating impurities like food waste from the plastic before recycling it. However, once that is done, we have a decent shot at actually removing all the plastic waste clogging up landfills and natural landscapes the world over — in a nice, clean, efficient manner.
The paper “Plastic waste to fuels by hydrocracking at mild conditions” has been published in the journal Science Advances.
In recent years, consumers have become much more environmentally conscious and mindful of the products they purchase. For instance, consumers might choose to avoid single-use plastic bottles or look to recycle on a consistent basis. That’s definitely a good thing. However, it can also be easy to miss the forest for the trees when making lifestyle choices with the intention of reducing one’s environmental footprint.
For instance, while it’s definitely important to recycle plastic products and avoid plastic packaging, in the grand scheme of things, there are other things that have a greater environmental impact, such as reducing and reusing products.
Writing in the journal of Environmental Science & Technology, University of Michigan environmental engineer Shelie Miller lists the five most common myths surrounding the environmental impact of single-use plastic. Her study is based on the life cycle assessment of products, which takes into account all of the energy and material needs of a product from extraction and manufacturing to the moment it ends up on the supermarket shelf. Not all products are equal in terms of their carbon and plastic footprints, so you may be surprised to learn that what may seem to be an obvious environmentally-friendly choice is not that great after all.
“I know lots of people who are trying to reduce their environmental impacts and who ask me to weigh in on what they can do to do more. In these conversations, it became apparent how much emphasis people place on reducing the solid waste that they generate, with a lot of concerns focusing on single-use plastic. My work tries to highlight the importance of understanding the full environmental impacts of products, especially the impacts that are less visible to consumers — energy use, resource extraction, and environmental damage that occur throughout the full supply chain. This article is intended to help people trying to reduce their environmental impacts to become better informed and make choices that are the most impactful.,” Miller told ZME Science.
Myth #1: plastic packaging contributes the most to a product’s environmental impact
When we see rows upon rows of plastic bottles in the supermarket or damning images of landfills stacked with them, it can be natural to conclude that herein lies the problem. So, if we were to recycle more plastic bottles and other types of plastic packaging, our contribution to environmental pollution would be greatly reduced.
False. What we see as consumers is just the tip of the iceberg. In reality, it is the product inside the packaging that 99% of the time has the greatest environmental impact. It’s just that packaging is the first thing that consumers see, so they naturally believe that is the part of the product with the most potential for environmental pollution.
Myth #2: plastic is the worst packaging material for the environment
That actually depends. Single-use plastic has a much lower overall environmental impact than single-use glass or metal in the vast majority of product categories.
Myth #3: reusable products are always better than single-use products
Plastic cutlery and foam food containers are definitely a problem if you use them on a daily basis, as are all single-use plastic containers. But for a reusable product to offset the materials and energy required to manufacture them, these typically have to be reused many, many times. Otherwise, these reusable products can actually be worse than plastic.
In a 2018 life-cycle assessment, Denmark’s ministry of environment and food found that cotton bags must be reused thousands of times before they meet the environmental performance of plastic bags. What’s more, organic cotton bags have to be reused many more times than conventional cotton bags (20,000 versus 7,000 times). This study, however, does not take into account the impact of plastic litter on marine animals and other wildlife — this assessment only discusses the energy and CO2 emissions that are involved in the product’s lifecycle.
Myth #4: Recycling and composting are the most important environmental-friendly things you can do
When compared to the impact of reducing overall consumption, recycling and composting actually have low environmental benefits. What’s more, composting has its own flaws and weaknesses. For instance, many consumers tend to throw in non-compostable look-alike items into their bins. This contamination increases the use of water, energy, and other resources and drives up operating costs.
In 2018, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) performed a review of over 1,200 comparisons involving compostable packaging and over 360 comparisons for food servicewear spanning 18 years of life-cycle assessments. Most of the time, the assessment found that the use of compostable products and the process of composting resulted in a higher impact on the environment than the use of non-compostable packaging or products.
Myth #5: “Zero waste” minimizes the environmental impact of a product or event
Zero waste — a set of principles that minimizes the waste we produce and links communities, businesses and industries so that one’s waste becomes another’s feedstock — is a fantastic idea. However, in terms of single-use plastic, the benefits of diverting plastic waste from the landfill aren’t that important compared to the impact of waste reduction and mindful consumption.
“Narrowing the number of misperceptions about single use plastics to five was pretty tough! But hopefully the five that I’ve chosen to highlight resonate with people and make them have a better understanding of some of the tradeoffs associated with single use plastic reduction,” Miller told me.
All of this is not to say that recycling is useless or that composting isn’t beneficial for the environment in some situations. It’s just that the discussion surrounding our impact on the environment has to be more nuanced.
In her study, Miller mentions the old adage of “reduce, reuse, recycle”, or the 3Rs of environmentally friendly living. However, the researcher stresses that this is actually a hierarchy. The most important thing we can do to lessen our environmental impact is simply to reduce our consumption, followed by reuse, and lastly recycling.
“The results of life cycle studies generally depend on the specific product being analyzed. There’s lots of nuances to the hierarchy of reduce, reuse, recycle. But we can definitively say that reducing consumption of environmentally intensive products is easily the most impactful thing a consumer can do to minimize environmental impact,” said Miller.
“We need to do a much better job preventing single use plastics from causing ecological damage. Luckily, there are lots of efforts underway to reduce plastic its way into ecosystems and developing better business models to reclaim plastics to form a more circular plastic economy.”
Oftentimes, environmental messaging overemphasizes the importance of recycling packaging. While this definitely has its merits, especially in terms of reducing the amount of plastic pollution in the ocean, this study paints a broader picture of the entire plastic-waste system.
“Our group tries to promote holistic, systematic thinking about sustainability and the environment. We try to help consumers and industrial partners think beyond a single environmental problem into trying to better understand the complexity and tradeoffs of systems. My research group is trying to help put individual actions people can take to reduce their environmental impact into more context. Yes, it’s good to recycle, and use a smart thermostat, and take public transportation, and reduce food waste — but if you have to choose where to put your energy, which has the most bang for the buck in terms of environmental improvement versus effort expended?” Miller concluded.
While it’s usually seen as a good practice, recycling paper is actually meaningful to the climate only when it’s powered by renewable energy, according to a modeling study. Greenhouse gas emissions would increase by 2050 if we recycle more paper, as current recycling methods rely on fossil fuels, researchers found.
A circular economy is expected to achieve sustainability goals through efficient use and reuse of materials. Waste recycling is an important part of a circular economy. However, for some materials, the potential environmental benefits of recycling are unclear or contested, say researchers from University College London.
Senior author Professor Paul Ekins said: “The recycling of some materials, for instance, metals, can lead to a very large reduction in emissions. But we need to be careful about assumptions that recycling, or a circular economy in general, will always have a positive effect on climate change.”
Lead author Dr. Stijn van Ewijk and his team modeled several scenarios for increasing recycling of wastepaper by 2050 and the impact this would have on greenhouse emissions. They found that if all wastepaper was recycled, emissions could increase by 10%, as recycling paper relies more on fossil fuels than making new paper.
Nevertheless, this doesn’t have to be the case. The researchers found that emissions would be radically reduced if paper production and disposal were carried out using renewable energy sources rather than fossil fuels. Renewables have never been cheaper, with solar expected to take over as the main energy source soon.
Making new paper from trees uses more energy than recycling it. But the energy for this process is generated from black liquor, the low-carbon by-product of the wood pulping process. In contrast, paper recycling relies on fuels and electricity from the grid. That’s the main concern of researchers, leading to emissions.
The team found that modernizing landfill practices can have a positive effect, such as capturing methane emissions and using them for energy. Nevertheless, the effect isn’t as significant as moving to renewables, they argued. For van Ewijk, recycling isn’t helpful unless it’s powered by clean energy sources.
“We looked at global averages, but trends may vary considerably in different parts of the world. Our message isn’t to stop recycling, but to point out the risk of investing in recycling at the expense of decarbonizing the energy supply and seeing very little change to emissions as a result,” he said
Paper accounted for 1.3% of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2012. About a third of these emissions came from the disposal of paper in landfills. The researchers argued that the use of paper will rise in the coming years, especially as the world moves away from plastics and instead uses paper packaging.
The researchers looked at how different levels of recycling, renewable energy use, and more environmentally friendly landfill practices affect our ability to reduce emissions. Counties agreed in the Paris Agreement to avoid global warming of more than 2ºC degrees compared to pre-industrial levels.
If past trends continue, emissions would slightly increase from the 2012 level (721 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in a year) to 736 metric tons in 2050, the findings showed. A recycling program, with landfill and energy uses remaining on the same path, would increase this still further by 10% (to 808 metric tonnes).
On the other hand, the researchers argue, improving landfill practices would reduce emissions to 591 metric tons. Meanwhile, moving to renewable energy, with recycling and landfill practices remaining on the standard path, would reduce emissions by 96% to 28 tons, the study showed.
While paper recycling can save trees and protect forest carbon stocks, the extent of this effect is unknown, the researchers said. This is because of a lack of understanding of the global forest carbon stock and the interrelated causes of deforestation. The study, therefore, assumes that recycling neither harms nor benefits forests.
Despite the challenges and restrictions brought in by the coronavirus pandemic, the United Kingdom seems to be turning more environmentally aware, at least in one regard. Accoring to a new report, nearly nine out of ten households claim they regularly recycle. According to the same research, people say they are more prepared to change their lifestyles to protect the environment.
Recycle Now, a government-funded recycling campaign managed by the a waste advisory body called Wrap, carried out a survey to UK households on recycling. They found that up to 73% said to be willing to do more for the environment, which is up from 68% in 2019. Also, 93% agreed that “everyone has a responsibility to help towards cleaning up the environment.”
“It’s fantastic to see that despite everything that has been thrown at them this year, more people than ever in the UK are taking responsibility for the environment by choosing to recycle,” Peter Maddox, director of Wrap UK, told The Guardian. “However, we still have a way to go in terms of correctly identifying what can and cannot be recycled.”
There’s still plenty of room for improvement. On average, households in the UK get rid of 1.5 items each day that could be recycled in the general rubbish; mainly foil, aerosols and plastic detergent or cleaning bottles, the study showed. More than 80% of Brits puts one or more items in the recycling that are actually not accepted by local collectors, mainly plastic fil, toothpaste tubes and glass cookware.
The same problems were reflected in separate polling published this week, with one in three London residents claiming to find recycling information difficult to understand. The findings came from a study carried out by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, which will carry out a program to boost recycling rates with the charity Hubbub and the drinks company Innocent.
Households will be asked to help catch “recycling’s most wanted” such as drinks cans, yogurt pots and bathroom plastics, which belong in the recycling, but sometimes manage to escape. Gavin Ellis, the co-founder of Hubbub, said in a statement “supporting households to recycle better is more important than ever before” as lockdown changed the way we live and work.
As useful as recycling can be, it can also be lulling people into a false sense that they are having a positive impact on the planet. While recycling can limit the environmental damage, it is still having an overall negative effect — researchers stress that reducing our consumption and waste is crucial.
Recycling is much more than just reducing the amount of waste sent to the landfill, with a long list of benefits that aren’t limited to the environment — there are economic and social advantages to recycling.
Even as we live in a consumer-driven world, with a growing appetite for new things, if we begin to look at the waste created by this level of consumption in a different light, we might turn our problem into an opportunity.
What is recycling
Whether it’s plastic, paper, or aluminum, the products and materials that can be used after they fulfill their original purpose are far from worthless. In fact, most materials have great recycling value. It is estimated that up to 75% of all the waste can be recycled or repurposed, a figure that how impactful the process can be if done right. Almost everything we see around us can be recycled, although different materials require different techniques when they are recycled. Most of the commonly recyclable materials include batteries, biodegradable waste, clothing, electronics, garments, glass, metals, paper, plastics, and a lot more.
Recycling the process of separating, collecting, and remanufacturing or converting used or waste products into new materials. But if we want to truly focus on recycling, it’s important to change the way we address it both on a personal and on a societal level.
Recycling helps extend the life and usefulness of something that has already served its initial purpose by returning it to its raw materials and then using those materials to produce something that is useable. It’s part of the three golden rules of sustainability (Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle) and has a lot of benefits both to us humans and to the environment. Virtually all the planet is impacted by how much we recycle.
Benefits of recycling
The world’s natural resources are finite, and some are in very short supply. At a fundamental level, recycling paper and wood can save trees and forests, recycling plastic means creating less new plastic, recycling metals means there’s less need for mining and recycling glass reduces the use of new raw materials like sand. Of course, the reality of it is much more complex, but the fundamental process is valid nonetheless. Metals, for instance, are repeatedly recyclable, while maintaining most or all of their properties.
Recycling reduces the need to grow, harvest, or extract new raw materials from the Earth. That, in turn, reduces the harmful disruption and damage being done to the natural world, which means fewer forests cut down, rivers diverted, wild animals harmed or displaced, and less pollution.
It’s also much better to recycle existing products than to damage someone else’s community or land in the search for new raw materials. The demand for new goods has led to more of the poorest and most vulnerable people being displaced from their homes or otherwise exploited.
Making products from recycled materials typically requires less energy than making them from new raw materials — sometimes it’s a huge difference in energy. For example, producing new aluminum from old products uses 95% less energy than making it from scratch. For steel, it’s about a 70% energy saving. While not always, manufacturing something the second time around usually consumes far less energy.
Because recycling means you need to use less energy on sourcing and processing new raw materials, it produces lower carbon emissions, which means it can help with global warming. It also keeps potentially methane-releasing waste out of landfill sites. Overall, reducing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases being emitted into the atmosphere is vital to stop climate change.
Recycling also makes economic sense. As a rule of thumb, it’s six times cheaper to dispose of recycled waste than general refuse. So, the more you recycle, and the less you put in the bin, the more money is saved — which should be good for households, businesses, and local public services. Recycling food waste and green waste is a great idea too, often generating lots of valuable compost.
Recycling can stimulate the economy in multiple ways. The EPA has shown recycling helps to create jobs in both the recycling and manufacturing industries. A 2016 study said recycling activities account in a single year for 757,000 jobs, $36.6 billion in wages and $6.7 billion in tax revenues.
The steps of recycling
Recycling includes three essential steps, which create a continuous loop, represented by the familiar recycling symbol. The first one is to actually collect the recyclables, which can be done in different ways (for example, they can be collected from the curbside, dropped-off at centers or gathered through deposit or refund programs),.
Following the collection, recyclables are sent to a recovery facility. They are classified, cleaned and processed into materials that can be used in manufacturing. Recyclables are then bought and sold just like raw materials would be, and prices go up and down depending on supply and demand.
A growing number of products are being manufactured with recycled content. Common household items that contain recycled materials are newspapers, steel cans, plastic laundry detergents and soft drink containers. Recycled materials are also used in new ways such as recovered glass in asphalt to pave roads.
Consumers can help close the recycling loop by buying new products made from recycled materials. There are thousands of products that contain recycled content. When you go shopping, look for products that can be easily recycled and products that contain recycled content.
Types of recycled materials
It’s important to recycle any materials possible, but one of the most relevant are plastics, as they are such a big part of the solid waste that we make. When plastic is sent to a landfill, it does not break down as it’s not biodegradable, and even in the oceanwater, plastic stays around forever, breaking down to smaller and smaller pieces (microplastics). Most plastics are used only once before they are discarded, known as single-use plastics — this type of single-use plastic is already being banned in many parts of the world.
Recycling metal is also very important as it saves energy, reduces emissions and creates jobs. Using recycled metal, known as scrap metal, instead of new metal reduces mining waste by 97% and saves more than 90% on energy, depending on the material. Recycling metals creates six times more jobs than sending the metals to a landfill.
The same applies to paper recycling. One ton of recycled paper saves 17 trees and 7,000 gallons of water. It also saves energy, about 4,000 kilowatts of it, enough t power an average American home for six months. Paper takes up a lot of space in landfills, so the more is recycled the better the landfills operate.
Like paper, cardboard recycling uses less water, cuts back on emissions, saves prime real estate in landfills for materials that are not recyclable, and prevents deforestation. It is estimated that recycling one ton of cardboard can save 17 trees from harm, 7,000 gallons of water
Reduce and reuse
You may have heard of “The 3 R’s”: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. While recycling is important, the most effective way to reduce waste is to not create it in the first place. Making a new product requires a lot of materials and energy and then the product has to be transported to wherever it will be sold. That means to reduce and reuse are also important ways to protect the environment.
Some of the ways to reduce and reuse include looking for products that use less packaging, which means less raw materials, buying reusable over disposable items, maintaining and repairing products like clothing so they don’t have to be thrown away and borrowing, renting or sharing items that are used infrequently like tools. Reducing our consumption should be the first step, and reusing also tends to be far more sustainable than recycling. Recycling means turning an item into raw materials which can be used again, either for the same product or a new one, while reusing means using an object as it is, without treatment.
The reason why recycling is so important is that it prevents pollution, reduces the need to harvest new raw materials, saves energy, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, saves money, reduces the amount of waste that ends up in landfills, and allows products to be used to their fullest extent. Sounds like a no-brainer, eh? If our society wants to truly reach some level of sustainability, recycling needs to play a core role in that, there’s just no alternative.
From flat-screen TVs to cellphones, humans generated 53.6 million metric tons of electronic waste last year, almost two million metric tons more than the previous year. Only 17% of the waste was recycled, with the rest ending up in landfills, incinerated or just unaccounted for.
Electronic and electrical goods such as computers, refrigerators, and kettles have gradually become indispensable in modern societies, making lives easier in many ways. But they can also have toxic chemicals, and a growing production of waste is damaging the environment and human health.
The figures for last year, reported by the United Nation’s Global E-waste Monitor, are equivalent to 7.3 kilograms of electronic waste for every man, woman and child on Earth, though the use is concentrated in wealthier countries.
The amount of e-waste is growing three times faster than the world’s population
Citizens of northern European countries produced the most e-waste last year, 22.4 kilograms per person. The amount was half that seen in eastern Europe. Australians and New Zealanders also ranked high with 21.3 kilograms per person, while in the US and Canada the figure was 20.9 kilograms.
“We are at the start of a kind of explosion due to increased electrification we see everywhere,” Ruediger Kuehr, one of the authors of the report, told The Verge. “It starts with toys, if you look at what is happening around Christmas, everything comes with a battery or plug. And it goes on with mobile phones and TV sets.”
The report also found that among the discarded plastic and silicon there were large amounts of precious metals such as copper and gold, used to conduct electricity on circuit boards. A sixth of it was recycled but the remainder wasn’t, accounting for $57 billion in metals.
The concerns are higher in low and middle-income countries, where some e-waste is recycled but using unsafe practices, such as burning circuit boards to recover copper. Doing so releases toxic metals such as mercury and lead that can cause severe health effects to workers and children living nearby.
About 50 tons of mercury from monitors, energy-saving light bulbs, and other e-waste is dumped each year, the report estimated. At the same time, gases released from discarded refrigerators and air-conditioning units were equivalent to 98 million tons of atmospheric carbon dioxide in 2019.
“E-waste is a very big problem because the amount is growing at a very rapid pace each year, and the level of recycling is just not keeping up the pace,” Kees Baldé at the UN University, based in Bonn, and an author of the report, told The Guardian. “It’s important to put a price on the pollution – at the moment it is simply free to pollute.”
Growth in e-waste is expected to continue unabated, in particular in countries that have growing middle classes. The authors of the study, which is produced by the UN University, the International Solid Waste Association and others, predicted that global e-waste could grow to 74 million metric tons by 2030.
Back in 2018, the UN had set a target of increasing the recycling of e-waste to 30% by 2023. But, as things are now, the report authors see the goal as unrealistic. The number of countries with national e-waste policies or laws in place has only increased from 61 to 78 since 2014, out of a total of 193 UN member states.
As COVID-19 restrictions start to ease, we’re unlikely to return to our previous behaviours, from our work-life balance to maintaining good hygiene.
But there are downsides to this new normal, particularly when it comes to hygiene concerns, which have led to an increase in an environmental scourge we were finally starting to get on top of: single-use plastics.
We’ve recently published research based on data collected in mid-2019 (before COVID-19). Our findings showed that not only were people avoiding single-use plastics most of the time, but one of the biggest motivators was knowing others were avoiding them too. Avoidance was becoming normal.
But then COVID-19 changed the game. Since the pandemic started, there has been a significant increase in plastic waste, such as medical waste from protective equipment such as masks, gloves and gowns, and increased purchases of sanitary products such as disposable wipes and liquid soap.
The good news is we can return to our plastic-avoiding habits. It just might look a little a different.
Avoidance was more normal than we realised
In our representative survey of 1,001 Victorians, we asked people about their behaviours and beliefs around four single-use plastic items: bags, straws, coffee cups and take-away containers.
We found people’s beliefs about how often others were avoiding these items was one of the strongest predictors of their own intentions.
Other influences that predicted intentions included personal confidence, the perceived self and environmental benefits and financial costs associated with avoidance, and whether others would approve or disapprove of the behaviour.
While beliefs about other peoples’ behaviour was one of the strongest predictors of intentions, there was still a gap between these beliefs and reported behaviour.
On average, 70% of our sample reported avoiding single-use plastics most of the time. But only 30% believed others were avoiding them as often.
Thankfully, our findings suggest we can encourage more people to avoid single-use plastics more often by sharing the news that most people are doing it already. The bad news is that COVID-19 has increased our reliance on single-use items.
Some single-use is necessary during a pandemic
Just when avoidance was becoming normal, the pandemic brought single-use plastics back into favour.
Our research focused on public single-use plastic avoidance behaviours, but now is a good time to look at private ones too.
There are plenty of single-use plastics in the home: cling wrap, coffee pods, shampoo and conditioner bottles, disposable razors and liquid soap dispensers to name a few.
But you can find reusable alternatives for almost everything: beeswax or silicone wraps, reusable coffee pods, shampoo and conditioner bars, reusable safety razors and bars of soap, rather than liquid soap.
Buying cleaning products in bulk can also reduce plastic packaging and keeping glass jars or hard plastic containers are great for storing leftovers.
Just because we’re in a period of change, doesn’t mean we have to lose momentum. Single-use plastics are a huge environmental problem that we can continue to address by changing our behaviours.
Few things are as annoying as a flat tire with no spare in the trunk. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could just snap your fingers and have the flat tire magically fix itself? Researchers in Australia and the UK have thought long and hard to develop tires with a novel composition that enables them to be repaired on the go.
No magic though — just good old chemistry
The tire is made of 50% sulfur mixed with canola cooking oil and a chemical called dicyclopentadiene (DCPD). All three main ingredients are byproducts of industrial activity and are generally discarded. For instance, DCPD is a waste product from petroleum refining.
However, what’s appealing about this new rubber material isn’t necessarily its environmental friendliness. Instead, where it shines is in its ability to self-repair in the presence of a catalyst.
When an amine catalyst is applied to a flat tire, a chemical reaction is triggered that completely repairs the damage and returns the tire to its original strength within minutes — even at room temperature. Take that, super glue!
Essentially, the new rubber material is a “latent adhesive” that is resistant to water and corrosion. Once the catalyst is applied, the polymers in the rubber join together.
“The rubber bonds to itself when the amine catalyst is applied to the surface. The adhesion is stronger than many commercial glues,” said Dr. Tom Hasell, University of Liverpool researcher and co-author of the new study.
If the tire is torn to shreds beyond repair or has reached the end of its life cycle, it can be easily recycled, according to Justin Chalker of Flinders University.
“This study reveals a new concept in the repair, adhesion and recycling of sustainable rubber,” Chalker, who is the team lead for the new study, said in a statement.
Most rubbers, as well as ceramics and plastics, are not recyclable. In Australia alone, 48 million tires are discarded but only 16% are recycled — the rest flood landfills or are illegally dumped across the country or, even worse, in the ocean.
“It is exciting to see how the underlying chemistry of these materials has such wide potential in recycling, next-generation adhesives, and additive manufacturing,” Chalker concluded.
Plastic pollution is among the most urgent issues the world is dealing with, as bottles, sachets, packets, among many products, are filling up the ocean, affecting landscapes and harming the health of the world’s poorest people.
Companies have a strong role to play, with just four global drink giants responsible for more than half a million tons of plastic pollution in six developing countries each year – enough to cover 83 football pitches every day, according to a report.
The NGO Tearfund calculated the greenhouse gas emissions from the open burning of plastic bottles, sachets, and cartons produced by Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestlé, and Unilever in China, India, the Philippines, Brazil, Mexico, and Nigeria. The report argued that the sachets, bottles, and cartons sold in the six countries are usually burned or dumped. Tearfund said the burning of plastic packaging put on to the market by these companies creates 4.6m tons of carbon dioxide equivalent – roughly the same level of emissions from two million cars.
“These companies continue to sell billions of products in single-use bottles, sachets, and packets in developing countries,” the report reads “And they do this despite knowing that waste isn’t properly managed in these contexts and their packaging therefore becomes pollution.”
Companies have climate change commitments but they rarely mention the emissions that come from the disposal of their products or packaging. That’s why Tearfund is asking them to switch to reusable packaging to avoid emissions.
“Reusable and refillable packaging preserves more of the value and natural resources embedded in each bottle and box. By contrast, recycled singleuse plastic is typically downcycled into synthetic fabrics, which then become waste again”, the NGO argued in the report.
Coca-Cola emerged as the worst polluter of the four companies in the report by far, with emissions greater than the other three combined. This is despite being the smallest company of the four in terms of sales revenue and is due largely because they use so much plastic per dollar of sales. The company creates 200,000 tons of plastic waste per year in the six countries, according to the report. The burning of such waste creates emissions equivalent to 2.5 million tons of carbon dioxide. That’s the same as three-quarters of their global transport and distribution emissions.
Replying to the report, a Coca-Cola spokesperson told The Guardian: “We are absolutely committed to ensuring the packaging in which we serve our products is sustainable and our efforts are focused on continuing to improve the eco-design and innovation of our packaging.”
The report included examples of the four companies adopting reusable and refillable delivery mechanisms in developing countries. Nevertheless, they are still few and far between. For example, Unilever is using a mobile dispensing delivery system run to offer refills to customers in Chile.
Tearfund is calling on the companies to reduce the number of single-use plastic products they use and sell by half in five years. Instead, they should use environmentally sustainable delivery methods such as refillable or reusable containers – working in partnership with was pickers.
You’re trying to do the right thing by throwing away that plastic container into the recycling bin. It even had a label that said it was recyclable, so you should be all good.
But unfortunately, there’s a good chance that it may end up in a landfill with the rest of the trash.
As part of a new study, Greenpeace looked at 367 recycling facilities across the US and found that only a small percentage of processed plates, cups, bags, and trays. Less than 15% received plastic clamshells and none accepted receiving coffee pods.
The recycling facilities only take in water and soda bottles, along with other thicker plastic for packaging. Most of the rest ends up in the trash, according to Greenpeace, which said other types of plastics can actually be recycled but that there’s currently no market for it in the US.
“Most types of plastics are not recyclable in the United States, and in fact appear to be illegal to even refer to as recyclable,” Greenpeace USA Oceans Campaign Director John Hocevar told VICE News. “Recycling isn’t broken, but plastic is choking it.”
Plastic is typically split in seven categories, numbered from #1 to #7:
Plastic #1: Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET). Typically used to make bottles and containers for condiments like ketchup, sauces, and jam.
Plastic #2: High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE). Used to make milk and some juice/water bottles, as well as shampoo and gel containers.
Plastic #3: Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC). This is most commonly used as a wrap for deli foods, beddings, plastic toys, and medication.
Plastic #4: Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE). Most commonly found in bags for bread, newspapers, fresh produce, as well as some milk cartons.
Plastic #5: Polypropylene (PP). Used for yogurt and takeout meals, among others.
Plastic #6: Polystyrene (PS). Also called styrofoam, this is commonly used to make cups, plates, bowls, take-out containers, trays and more.
Plastic #7: Other. All the other types of plastic.
The report argued the main problem is the plastics labeled from 3 to 7, many of which are used as a mixture with other types of materials — such as a coffee cup made of paper with plastic lining. They are very difficult and expensive to separate.
Nevertheless, most mixed plastics are branded as recyclable by manufacturing companies, Greenpeace noted. But recycling facilities find it had to repurpose them and instead just trash them away. All this is confusing customers, who are no longer sure what can be recycled or not (and are often deceived into believing many of their products are recycled when in fact, they are not).
Most of those mixed plastics used to be shipped from the US to China. In fact, the same happened with other countries, as 70% of the world’s plastic went to China. But it all changed in 2018 when China decided to cut back almost all imports of trash. Now, countries as the US were left without the capacity to process their plastics and are starting to face the problems they have swept under the rug for years.
“Post-consumer “mixed” plastics (plastics #3-7 and non-bottle plastics #1 and #2) have been most affected because China was the primary destination for those types of collected plastic wastes and there is minimal demand, value or reprocessing capacity for them in the U.S,” said Greenpeace’ report.
Greenpeace said it could soon file federal complaints against manufacturers as they are misleading the public about the recyclability of their packaging. The NGO said companies that produce the plastic that is ultimately responsible for the plastics crisis, calling for accurate labeling.
Speaking to the Guardian, the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, which represents brands trying to improve packaging, said the recycling industry was facing disruption. Nevertheless, she added that new US processing capacity was being developed to enhance the recyclability of products.
In terms of plastic recycling, the United States ranks behind Europe (30%) and China (25%) in recycling, the study found. Recycling in the U.S. has remained at 9% since 2012, according to a study published last year. But the problem is much wider, with most countries struggling with their waste.
A 2019 study published in Science Advances showed that of the 8.3 billion metric tons that have been produced, 6.3 billion metric tons has become plastic waste. Of that, only nine percent have been recycled. The vast majority (79%) is accumulating in landfills and then ends up in the ocean.
We can’t just get rid of all plastic, experts agree, as some its unavoidable. Plastic extends the life of produce and acts as a barrier to bacteria, for example. Nevertheless, we can learn how to better recycle it and replace it when possible with our own reusable containers.
For example, plastic wrap can’t be recycled as it’s hard to deal with at the material recovery facility, as well as small plastics as bag clips and flexible packaging. On the other hand, beverage bottles can be recycled as well as other bottles such as shampoo and soap.
Plastic clamshells are made from the same elements as beverage bottles, but not all recycling facilities can process them. Meanwhile, polystyrene foam can’t be recycled as it’s made of air and requires a special machine to process it, which most recycling facilities don’t have.
In the last few years, states have also implemented regulation on plastics, such as California and Maine, which set restrictions on the use of plastic straws and single-use plastics. Now, Democrats are pushing a bill to ban nationwide the use of several types of single-use plastics, cutting the problem at its source.
South Africa managed to find a single solution to two problems it’s currently facing. The country is now recycling plastic milk bottles to make new roads, hoping to solve its waste problems while improving the quality of the roads.
Shisalanga Construction became in August the first company in South Africa to lay a section of road that’s partly plastic, in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) province on the east coast. It has now repaved more than 400 meters of the road in Cliffdale, on the outskirts of Durban, using asphalt made with the equivalent of almost 40,000 bottles.
In order to make the roads, the company uses a thick plastic typically used for milk bottles known as high-density polyethylene (HDPE). They replace six percent of the asphalt’s bitumen binder, so every ton of asphalt contains roughly 118 to 128 bottles.
The method releases fewer toxic emissions than during traditional processes and its compound is more durable and water-resistant, withstanding temperatures as high as 70 degrees Celsius (158F) and as low as 22 below zero (-7.6F).
While the cost is similar to other methods, the company believes there will be a financial saving as its roads are expected to last longer than the national average of 20 years. “The results are spectacular,” said general manager Deane Koekemoer. “The performance is phenomenal.”
About 70% of the plastic in South Africa is sourced from landfill. The plastic will only be taken from landfill if there is somewhere for it to go — such as into roads. Shisalanga says that by turning bottles into roads it is creating a new market for waste plastic, allowing its recycling plant partner to take more out of the nation’s dumps.
Shisalanga has applied to the South Africa National Roads Agency (SANRAL) to lay 200 tons of plastic tarmac on the country’s main N3 highway between Durban and Johannesburg and is awaiting approval for the project. If it meets the agency’s requirements, the technology could be rolled out across the nation.
India began laying plastic roads 17 years ago, and the concept has been tested in locations across Europe, North America, and Australia. But there are concerns over potential carcinogenic gases created during production and the release of microplastics (tiny particles of plastic) as the roads wear away.
Shisalanga has spent five years researching the technology. Its technical manager Wynand Nortje said its method of melting the plastic into the bitumen modifier minimizes the risk of microplastics. “The performance of our plastic mix is better than traditional modifiers, the fatigue seems improved and resistance to water deformation is as good or better,” he adds.
Roads are one of many creative solutions to reusing plastic waste. Companies around the world are turning it into bricks, fuel, and clothing. Some other international companies have even found ways to repurpose so-called “non-recyclable” plastic into roads.
New research is looking to give plastic waste a new lease on life as quality motor oil, lubricants, detergents, or even cosmetics.
Let’s not beat around the bush: humanity has a plastic problem. We’re making a lot of it and we’re throwing most away after a single use. Most recycling methods available today can take some of this waste out of the environment, but they also result in cheap, lower-quality plastics than the ones going into the process, which doesn’t make them very lucrative.
In an effort to find a better way of repurposing the mounds of plastic in the wild, a group of U.S. researchers has developed a new catalyst to turn them into high-quality liquid hydrocarbons. These materials can serve as the base for other products or can be useful as-is.
Liquidizing the assets
“Our team is delighted to have discovered this new technology that will help us get ahead of the mounting issue of plastic waste accumulation,” said Kenneth Poeppelmeier, a paper co-author from Northwestern University.
“Our findings have broad implications for developing a future in which we can continue to benefit from plastic materials, but do so in a way that is sustainable and less harmful to the environment and potentially human health.”
The upcycling method relies on a new catalyst the team developed. It is constructed from perovskite nanocubes studded with platinum nanoparticles. Perovskite was chosen because it remains stable under high temperatures and pressures, and is also a very good material for energy conversion (perovskite is the main material used for several types of solar panels). To deposit nanoparticles onto the nanocubes, the team used atomic layer deposition, a technique developed at Argonne National Laboratory that allows precise control of nanoparticles.
Under moderate pressure and temperature conditions, the catalyst breaks down plastics into high-quality liquid hydrocarbons. The team explains that these substances could be used in motor oil, lubricants, or waxes, or further processed to make ingredients for detergents and cosmetics.
It’s the first plastic recycling or upcycling method that is able to reach this end product. Commercially-available catalysts today generate lower quality products with many short hydrocarbons, which are of limited usefulness. Classic melt-and-reprocess recycling results lower-value plastic that is not as structurally strong as the original material.
Plastics are so resilient because on an atomic level, they have a lot of carbon atoms linked to other carbon atoms — and this chemical bond is very strong (has a lot of energy). As a rule of thumb, it takes a greater amount of energy than that contained in a bond to break it. There aren’t many things in nature that can completely break down plastic, but there are enough sources of energy to degrade it into microplastics. Given that we produce around 380 million tons of plastic yearly, and that over 75% is thrown away after one use (ending up in waterways and the ocean), it adds up to a lot of microplastics.
“There are certainly things we can do as a society to reduce consumption of plastics in some cases,” said Aaron D. Sadow, a scientist in the Division of Chemical and Biological Sciences at Ames Laboratory and the paper’s co-lead author. “But there will always be instances where plastics are difficult to replace, so we really want to see what we can do to find value in the waste.”
The team says that their approach produces far less waste than comparable processes, and virtually no emissions compared to recycling methods that involve melting plastic.
The paper “Upcycling Single-Use Polyethylene into High-Quality Liquid Products” has been published in the journal ACS Central Science.
Despite its key role in conserving energy, reducing landfills and even saving money, half of the adults in the UK don’t believe recycling is good for the planet, according to a recent survey by Smart Energy GB.
The study, carried among 4.000 adults, showed just 49% believing that removing single-use plastics will make a difference and that just three in 10 think energy efficiency would have the biggest impact on protecting the environment.
In association with the University of Salford, Smart Energy GB carried the study to highlight the effect of energy efficiency and smart meter installation in the battle against the climate crisis.
Only 20% of those surveyed were aware of the smart meter’s (an electricity network system that uses data technology to make the UK more energy efficient) contribution in helping make the country more sustainable. If each house installed a smart meter, the country could achieve 11 percent of its 2050 carbon targets.
The research company stressed that Brits underestimated the importance of energy efficiency in the battle against the climate crisis, and measures were needed to raise awareness in the general public.
Sacha Deshmukh, CEO of Smart Energy GB, said: “We are facing a climate crisis. The UK wants to lead the world with our commitment to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. But we have a lot to do if we really want to meet that goal.”
The role of recycling
As with many things, it just takes more — more resources, more energy — to make new things than to recycle old things. Consider that 20 recycled cans can be made with the energy needed to produce just one single can using virgin materials
Glass is one of the most popular materials recycled, because of its raw material composition — mostly sand — and because it can be recycled over and over again without degrading in quality. In fact, recycled glass is the main ingredient in making “new” glass.
In 2016, the UK generated 222.9 million tons of waste, up 4% from 2014. England was responsible for 85% of the total. Construction and demolition generate the most – about 136 million tons a year. Mineral waste accounts for 36% of the total and includes anything that’s leftover from mining or quarrying and can’t be used again.
The recycling rate for UK households’ waste was 45.7% in 2017, a small increase on the previous year. Wales had the highest recycling rate in 2017 at 57.6%. It’s the only UK country to exceed the EU’s target to recycle at least 50% of waste from households by 2020. England and Scotland followed with 45.2% and 43.5% respectively.
Researchers from the University of Toronto (U of T) Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering plan to make CO2 capture even more appealing — they’ve developed a process that allows for atmospheric CO2 to be recycled into fuel or plastics for much lower costs than before.
Limestone, a carbonate rock. CO2 capture methods often convert the gas into similar rocks. Image via Pixabay.
Direct-air carbon capture is an emerging technology that uses CO2 already in the atmosphere as raw material to make a range of commercial products such as fuel or plastics. It’s a promising alternative to the traditional approach, environmentally speaking, because it substitutes carbon compounds found in oil, coal, or natural gas with the one that’s floating around in (and heating up) the air we breathe. However, it’s also the more expensive approach between the two.
The team, led by Professor Ted Sargent from the U of T, aims to drive its cost down.
Cutting out the middleman
“Today, it is technically possible to capture CO2 from air and, through a number of steps, convert it to commercial products,” says Prof. Sargent.
“The challenge is that it takes a lot of energy to do so, which raises the cost and lowers the incentive. Our strategy increases the overall energy efficiency by avoiding some of the more energy-intensive losses.”
The team worked on a new electrochemical process that can capture and transform that CO2 for a fraction of the cost (compared to currently-available approaches).
Up to now, the most common approach involved pumping air through a liquid, alkaline solution. This substance dissolves CO2 in the air, chemically-tying it into carbonate compounds. To retrieve the useful carbon, these compounds need to then be turned back into CO2 gas. Commonly, chemical agents are used to convert the carbonate solution into a solid salt which is then baked at temperatures in excess of 900ºC to release the gas. This is then hoovered up and used to synthesize other carbon compounds.
It takes a lot of energy — and thus, a lot of money — to generate all that heat. And that’s just not a very effective way of doing it, the team believes. Their alternative method involves the use of an electrolyzer, a device that uses electricity to drive chemical reactions. They got the idea from previous work which involved the use of electrolyzers to produce hydrogen from water. The process, they say, does away with the heating step, allowing for the carbonate solution to be turned directly back into CO2.
The new electrolyzer also employs a silver-based catalyst that immediately turns the released CO2 into syngas. Syngas (synthesis gas) is a mixture of hydrogen, and CO, with some CO2, and is a very common feedstock material for the chemical industry. Syngas is involved in processes ranging from plastic to jet fuel production.
“We used a bipolar membrane, a new electrolyzer design that is great at generating protons,” says Geonhui Lee, co-lead author of the paper describing the technique. “These protons were exactly what we needed to convert the carbonate back into CO2 gas.”
“This is the first known process that can go all the way from carbonate to syngas in a single step,” Sargent adds.
Another advantage this process has over conventional CO2 retrieval processes is better yields and higher efficiency. Furthermore, it solves a major problem regarding existing electrolyzing technologies: these cannot actually work with carbonate.
“Once the CO2 turns into carbonate, it becomes inaccessible to traditional electrolyzers,” says Li. “That’s part of the reason why they have low yields and low efficiencies. Our system is unique in that it achieves 100% carbon utilization: no carbon is wasted. It also generates syngas as a single product at the outlet, minimizing the cost of product purification.”
Lab tests showed that the new electrolyzer can convert carbonate to syngas with an overall efficiency of 35%, with stable operations confirmed for over six days at a time. There’s still work to be done in upscaling the process to industrial scales, according to Sargent, but the proof-of-concept device shows the new method is viable.
“It goes a long way toward answering the question of whether it will ever be possible to use air-captured CO2 in a commercially compelling way,” he says. “This is a key step toward closing the carbon loop.”
The paper “CO2 Electroreduction from Carbonate Electrolyte” has been published in the journal ACS Publications.
Research from Tel Aviv University (TAU) shows that recycling may, in fact, be an ancient tradition. Prehistoric humans deliberately “recycled” discarded or broken flint tools 400,000 years ago to create smaller, more specialized tools.
Tuber cutting with a small recycled flake, alongside a close-up. Image credits Flavia Venditti / AFTAU.
In collaboration with members from the University of Rome, researchers from TAU’s Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Cultures used two different spectrometry methods to analyze small, peculiar tools that have been uncovered at prehistoric sites throughout Europe and North Africa. Their edges show signs of use, the team reports, and were likely used for in food preparation. This theory is also supported by micro residue found embedded in the edges.
Recycling, before it was cool
“Recycling was a way of life for these people,” says Prof. Ran Barkai from TAU, the paper’s corresponding author. “It has long been a part of human evolution and culture. Now, for the first time, we are discovering the specific uses of the recycled ‘tool kit’ at Qesem Cave.”
The site of Qesem Cave is located just outside Tel Aviv. It was discovered during road construction projects which were undergoing in the area in 2000. Together with caves in Spain and North Africa and digs in Italy and Israel, Qesem produced the tiny blades the team analyzed in the study. Along with other material retrieved from these sites, the tiny blades show signs that prehistoric humans recycled broken tools, or those that were no longer needed, into tinier but more specialized blades.
Due to these cave’s microclimates, the flint tools were preserved in excellent condition, along with residue material from their use embedded in their edges — allowing for their proper analysis. The researchers used two techniques to do so: Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR) and scanning electron microscopy coupled with energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopy (SEM-EDX).
“We used microscopic and chemical analyses to discover that these small and sharp recycled tools were specifically produced to process animal resources like meat, hide, fat and bones,” explains Dr. Flavia Venditti of the TAU and lead author of the study.
“We also found evidence of plant and tuber processing, which demonstrated that they were also part of the hominids’ diet and subsistence strategies.”
Signs of use were found on the outer edges, the team reports, indicative of cutting activity. Material on the blades suggests that they were used in activities related to the consumption of food: butchery activities and tuber, hide and bone processing.
The team went to great pains to meticulously analyze the tools to “demonstrate that [they] were used in tandem with other types of utensils,” according to Dr Venditti. This would suggest that the recycling was a deliberate process, used specifically to produce a more specialized tool to be used as part of a larger kit.
“The research also demonstrates that the Qesem inhabitants practiced various activities in different parts of the cave: The fireplace and the area surrounding it were eventually a central area of activity devoted to the consumption of the hunted animal and collected vegetal resources, while the so-called ‘shelf area’ was used to process animal and vegetal materials to obtain different by-products,” she adds.
The study touches on two hot topics in the field of stone-age archaeology, looking at both the role of small tools and that of recycling in prehistoric communities. The findings show that recycling was an established, on-going practice at Qesem Cave rather than a more opportunistic process. The people in this area had ample access to flint, the team also notes, so it wasn’t a question of scarcity. Rather, it seems that this group of people deliberately used tool recycling to produce these tiny blades because it was the most effective way to do so. The blades had to be tiny yet sharp, as they were used in tasks where “precision and accuracy were essential,” Venditti concludes
The paper “Recycling for a purpose in the late Lower Paleolithic Levant: Use-wear and residue analyses of small sharp flint items indicate a planned and integrated subsistence behavior at Qesem Cave (Israel)” has been published in the journal Journal of Human Evolution.
Microwave ovens could be one of the EU’s largest polluters, new research has found.
Image credits peapod labs / Flickr.
Researchers at the University of Manchester say that microwave ovens have a much darker side than you’d first believe — these little appliances account for CO2 emissions comparable to those of nearly seven million cars, in the EU alone. The team carried out the first-ever comprehensive study of the environmental impact of microwaves from “cradle to grave”.
The study relied on life cycle assessment (LCA), a technique used to assess the environmental impacts of a product, summed up over all the stages of its life from raw material extraction to disposal or recycling. All in all, the team looked at 12 different factors which play into a commodity’s environmental impact, including ecological toxicity, depletion of natural resources, and contribution to climate change. Some highlights of their results include:
Microwaves emit 7.7 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year in the EU — equivalent to the annual emissions of 6.8 million cars.
Microwaves across the EU consume an estimated 9.4 terawatts per hour (TWh) of electricity every year — roughly the amount generated by three large gas power plants.
The main environmental impacts identified by the researchers are raw material exraction and processing, the manufacturing process for the ovens, and end-of-life waste management. Manufacturing alone, the team reports, accounts for more than 20% of the total impact in the natural resource depletion and contribution to climate change brackets.
However, electricity consumption has the single largest impact on the environment among all the factors analyzed in the study. This included all energy used in the ovens’ life cycle, from fuels used in manufacturing to energy generation in power plants. All in all, the EU’s microwave ovens consume an estimated 9.4 TWh of electricity per year. Your average oven will thus burn through roughly 573-kilowatt-hour (kWh) of electricity over an eight-year lifetime. The team notes that this is equivalent to an LED turned on for almost nine years straight, despite the fact that microwave ovens spend 90% of their lifetime in idle, standby mode.
Electrical and electronic waste. Image credits far closer / Flickr.
Another source of environmental damage stems from consumer habits in regards to the devices. In 2005, the EU as a whole generated 184,000 tones of electrical and electronic (EE) waste solely from discarded microwaves. By 2025, this quantity is estimated to reach 195,000 tonnes — roughly 16 million units thrown away in a single year.
“Rapid technological developments and falling prices are driving the purchase of electrical and electronic appliances in Europe,” says lead author Dr Alejandro Gallego-Schmid. “Consumers now tend to buy new appliances before the existing ones reach the end of their useful life as electronic goods have become fashionable and ‘status’ items.”
“As a result, discarded electrical equipment, such as microwaves, is one of the fastest growing waste streams worldwide.”
Overall, the lifespan of these ovens has dropped by nearly 7 years in the past two decades, the team adds, going from around 10 to 15 years in the late 90s to around 6 to 8 years today. Shorter lifespans have helped to increase the amount of EE generated from microwave ovens.
The authors show that existing regulation is not sufficient to address the environmental impact of these devices, and believe we’ll have to develop specific regulation targeting their design. Such measures should aim to reduce the quantity of resources that go into making the ovens, and recycling as much as possible from them at the end of their life cycle.
Efforts to reduce consumption should focus on improving consumer awareness and on teaching them to use these appliances more efficiently. For example, electricity consumption can be reduced by adjusting the time of cooking to each type of food.
“Given that microwaves account for the largest percentage of sales of all type of ovens in the EU, it is increasingly important to start addressing their impact on resource use and end-of-life waste”, Gallego-Schmid explains.
The paper “Environmental assessment of microwaves and the effect of European energy efficiency and waste management legislation” has been published in the journal Science of The Total Environment.
An international team of researchers led by Saleem Ali, Blue and Gold Distinguished Professor of Energy and Environment at the University of Delaware, warns that greater international political and scientific cooperation is needed to secure the resources we’ll need in the future.
Even ubiquitous iron could run short. Image credits nightowl / Pixabay.
To say that humanity today faces some challenges would be an understatement. Political unrest, climate change, income inequality, drug resistance, they all add up. Still, as a species, we’ve shown a knack for eventually overcoming all the problems that’ve been thrown our way — be them by chance or our own hand. All we need is enough time to think about a solution and enough stuff to put it together and voila! Progress.
But we may be soon running short on the second part, the raw materials, an international team of researchers warns. They say that greater international transparency and a free exchange of geophysical data between countries is needed to secure the future’s supply of raw minerals.
What’s (low) on the menu
The team includes members from the academic, industrial, and government sectors in institutions throughout the U.S., South America, Europe, South Africa, and Australia. They are primarily concerned with future supply of a wide range of technology minerals, which are indispensable in all kinds of industries — from copper wiring in homes or laptop batteries all the way to solar panels and superdense batteries for electric cars. However, they say there’s also cause for concern regarding base metals such as copper or iron ore.
“There are treaties on climate change, biodiversity, migratory species and even waste management of organic chemicals, but there is no international mechanism to govern how mineral supply should be coordinated,” said Ali, who is the paper’s lead author.
They looked at demand records and forecasts, as well as estimates of the sustainability of mineral supplies in the coming decades. They write that current mining operations won’t be able to keep up with the rise in demand, especially considering the fact that “implementation of the Paris Agreement requires technologies that utilize a wide range of minerals in vast quantities.” When push comes to shove, no matter how green our policy and technology gets, if we can’t build it and field it, it won’t do us much good. So we need to up our extraction game.
“Metal recycling and technological change will contribute to sustaining supply, but mining must continue and grow for the foreseeable future to ensure that such minerals remain available to industry,” they conclude.
The materials required for the transition to a low-carbon economy, the stuff that goes into manufacturing clean tech, will be particularly tricky, the researchers say. While base materials are used extensively in current economies –so it’s only a matter of expanding on well-established methods and deposits –traditionally there hasn’t been a wide-scale demand of the more exotic minerals required for clean energy sources, leaving society ill-equipped to meet the extra demand for these materials.
Neodymium is used to make the strongest permanent magnets we know of. Image credits Brett Jordan / Flickr.
We’ll have to both find suitable deposits and develop more efficient methods of extracting, refining, and handling these elements. Metals like neodymium, terbium, or iridium, although only needed in small quantities, can’t be substituted for anything else in certain clean energy applications and other advanced tech. So while they seem to only make up a tiny part of the overall requirements, they are vital for future applications. A bottleneck in terms of material production for these vital minerals would bottleneck development of the industry and ultimately energy production.
According to the team, the best way to prevent this is to work together. International coordination is needed to determine where to focus future exploration efforts, what areas are likely to be rich or poor in which resources and thus what kind of economic agreements are needed between different countries to make sure that there aren’t any deficiencies anywhere.
Supply and demand
Those of you who think laissez-faire systems are the bee’s knees are probably prickling in horror at the mere thought of internationalgovernmentmeddling in the market. But the team points out that the forces which dictate the prices of major commodity minerals don’t (currently) apply to rare earths and other technology minerals.
For example, the largest percentage of exploration investment in a single mineral is in gold, which although highly profitable, is largely used for jewelry. It, along with other major commodity metals such as copper or iron ore are sold on a global market the same way grain or oil is, a market which fluctuates according to supply and demand. But rare earth metals and other technology minerals, however, are sold through individual dealers and prices can vary wildly between them.
Even more, the UN expects global population to reach about 8.5 billion by 2030, which means more demand for these substances in the next decade or so. For your run of the mill goods, take clothes or newspapers, a growth in demand (reflected in a greater price) is swiftly and easily followed by an increase in production. But mineral supply doesn’t follow that same relationship to demand, because of the huge spans of time required to get an exploitation up and running — the horizon for developing a rare earth mineral deposit, from exploration and subsequent discovery to actually mining the thing, is 10 to 15 years, the team says.
Rare earth elements are usually produced as oxides. Clockwise from top center: praseodymium, cerium, lanthanum, neodymium, samarium, and gadolinium. Image credits Peggy Greb, US department of agriculture / Wikimedia.
Considering that only about 10% or early exploration efforts result in a mineable deposit, the outlook is even bleaker. Most deposits prospectors find simply aren’t big enough or concentrated enough to be economically viable. Companies can also have a lot of trouble getting exploitation rights or run into zoning problems due to geopolitical factors.
“Countries where minerals are likely to be found may have poor governance, making it higher risk for supply. But production from these countries will be needed to meet global demand. We need to be thinking about this,” Ali said.
The authors also warn that for many of the minerals their paper calls into discussion, there aren’t any substitutes. With so few commercially viable alternatives even for the humble copper wire, it’s simply a matter of produce enough stuff or run short.
Ali and his team hope that the paper will form the foundation of an intergovernmental framework or another similar system which would allow countries to plan and prevent mineral scarcity in the future — as both private and public sectors are dependent on raw materials. They say that quick improvements can be made through expansion of developing organizations, such as the United Nation’s International Resource Panel or the Canadian-led Intergovernmental Panel on Mining Metals and Sustainable Development. Longer-term solutions will need greater international transparency and could include global sharing of geological data and the creation of mechanisms to protect mineral deposit ‘finds’ much like we protect intellectual property.
“It’s about managing the flow of resources from the ground to product to consumer to recycling,” Ali said.
“People have been so concerned about climate change that it’s created a real movement around it. We don’t see this around resource use and recovery, even though it is much closer to us on a daily basis.”
The full paper “Mineral supply for sustainable development requires resource governance” has been published in the journal Nature.