4. Remember: Trash is cash.
The rate of material that is recovered from today’s waste streams and recycled into new industrial feedstocks will need to grow exponentially if a circular economy is going to work. A series of presentations at the conference explored strategies and technologies that could get us there.
If you think separating out plastic packaging at home is a pain, imagine how challenging it becomes when tons of different kinds of it need to be sorted at a recycling facility. A study from Michigan State University investigated whether it was possible to modify the properties of post-consumer polymers at the site of separation in order to return the valuable materials to manufacturers.
Post-consumer plastics are typically “down-cycled.” That is, they end up in products or applications that are of a lower value than their original use. But a study from UMass Lowell wanted to find ways to “up-cycle” one of the most common—and most difficult to recycle—forms of plastic waste: low-density polyethylene (LDPE) films like those used for plastic bags. According to the researchers, upcycling recycled polymers into new uses could see the global plastics recycling market increase from a 2018 value of $37.8 billion to $72.6 billion by 2026. They concluded that upcycling recovered LDPE feedstocks comes down to a change in product design: Designers should embrace the properties of the recycled polymer, rather than designing in spite of them.
Imagine plastic packaging that, once discarded, broke down naturally within a few months into compost. Research presented from Sandia National Laboratory asked whether plant-based biodegradable plastics—currently limited to restaurant service-ware—could form the basis of “non-persistent” materials in a circular economy. But significant challenges will need to be overcome to get there: The study found that most composting facilities cannot accept biodegradable plastics. It also recognized that conventional plastic packaging keeps air, water, and light out to allow for shelf-stable products—all conditions that make biodegradable plastic break down.
The advent of “fast fashion” in the 20th century transformed how we buy, wear, and get rid of clothes. Today, the life cycle of textiles spans a complex process for extracting and processing raw materials, and then producing fabrics that are subsequently sent to manufacturers to make garments. While some post-consumer clothes get reused, most end up in landfills or are incinerated. As a presenter from Accelerating Circularity Inc. noted, blended textiles—which mix plastic and natural fibers—are very difficult to recycle.
It has to become easier for companies to sort textiles from the waste stream and trace the different materials they contain.
To consider circular economy outcomes for clothing, it has to become easier for companies to sort textiles from the waste stream and trace the different materials they contain. A paper from the University of Michigan reviewed research into mechanical and chemical processes for sorting clothes that leveraged advanced technologies like QR codes, radio frequency identification (RFID), rare-earth fluorescents, fiber barcodes, and even synthetic DNA.