Recycling has been a topic of recent media trash talk. Energy consumption associated with the practice, particularly through transport, is high, negating many of its environmental benefits. In addition, the price of many recyclable commodities has fallen dramatically (aluminum fell from $0.80 to $0.37 per pound in recent months), undermining the economics of recycling. However, depending on the material, recycling can still have a major environmental benefit. Recycling aluminum saves 10 tons of CO2 per ton of metal. Glass, on the other hand, only saves 0.34 tons of CO2 per ton of material, and these small savings are quickly offset by emissions from transportation, collection, and distribution. Cities are increasingly seeing that recycling is, in many cases, just not worth the investment.
In Portland, Oregon, for example, recycling recovery rates (the amount of recyclables recovered from municipal waste) fell between 2013 and 2014. Some of this decline is easily explained by reduced circulation of magazines, junk mail, and newspapers. However, the construction of new buildings rose in the city, increasing the amount of metal and wood waste that could have been recycled. The WestRock paper mill, Portland’s wood processing facility, closed in October of 2015 due to financial troubles. The cost of recycling remains high elsewhere as well, especially for curbside recycling. In Augusta, Maine, the cost of recycling is $879 and $113 per ton for curbside collection and collection at Augusta City Center, respectively. On December 17, the Augusta city council voted to end curbside recycling in May 2016.
Recycling is still very popular among consumers. In fact, since its introduction in the 1980s, there are now more than 9,800 curbside recycling programs in the United States. However, recycling is, and always has been, energy intensive and costly. Materials like aluminum are beneficial to recycle, but for plastic and glass, the current systems and technology makes the practice economically and environmentally unfavorable. For recycling to work, the system has to change.
Technology to the Rescue
Recent advances in recycling technology could solve many of these problems. For example, Epson’s new waterless PaperLab allows offices to recycle up to 6,720 sheets of paper a day onsite. This eliminates the need to transport heavy, used paper. In Denver, Colorado, Alpine Waste is setting up a state-of-the-art Styrofoam recycling system. This will allow the city to process a previously hard-to-recycle material and prevent a lengthy trip to far-away processing facilities.
Another improvement involves a new type of easily recycled plastics. Discovered by Eugene Chen and Miao Hong of Colorado State University, the material is known as poly(GBL), and can be reduced to its original monomer state (for remaking into plastics) at 220°C and 300°C (428°F and 572°F) for linear and cyclic polymers, respectively. The process to recycle poly(GBL) completely breaks down polymers and does not require the same high level of energy or water as previous plastic recycling systems—since the raw material doesn’t reach as high of a temperature, less water is required to cool it. This material promises to be cheaper to produce and recycle than many petroleum- or bacteria-derived plastics currently in production.
The current system of recycling is not cost or energy efficient. However, many recent advances have been made to usher in more efficiency. Arlene Karidis of Waste Dive, a news source dedicated to covering of municipal waste, recently published an article stating that technological advancements in recycling are expected continue in 2016, with increased emphasis being placed on safety, automation, and separation of materials. As 2015 ends, the year ahead promises a renewal in the way we think about recycling.