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Thread: Fixing Recycling

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    Administrator lpetrich's Avatar
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    Fixing Recycling

    All the Ways Recycling Is Broken — and How to Fix Them
    You may throw a plastic container in the recycling bin and assume it’s going to easily become a new item. But every step of our recycling system — from product design to collection to sorting — has major flaws. Fortunately, promising technology is starting to come online that could revolutionize the process.

    You may have read that there’s a recycling crisis in the U.S. After years of accepting our used plastic and cardboard, China now won’t take it, which often means there is no place for it to go. Some city recycling programs — unable to find other buyers — have quietly started sending recyclables to incinerators or landfills, news that could make anyone question the point of separating your trash at all.

    Each year, by one estimate, Americans throw out around 22 million tons of products that could have been recycled. Tens of millions of homes don’t have access to recycling; for those that do, everything from broken blenders to old clothing still ends up in the trash. If you drop an empty package in a recycling bin and it’s trucked off to a sorting facility, that doesn’t necessarily guarantee it will be recycled. You might have unwittingly tossed something that your local recycling service doesn’t accept, or the package might have been designed in a way that makes it unrecyclable.
    Metals are easy to recycle. It is easy to make new aluminum cans from old ones. Melt them, make sheets of aluminum from the liquid aluminum, and then make new cans from those sheets. In fact, doing so is much less energy costly than refining aluminum from its ores.

    Plastics are a different story, however. Different kinds of plastic have different chemical compositions, and they don't mix very well. So the most that one can do with mixed plastic is make a plastic version of particleboard, made from wood chips glued together. So one has to sort out the plastic to get something easily recyclable.

    Currently, human sorters are necessary for the initial phase of sorting, to remove trash and stuff like plastic bags which easily clogs sorting machines. Those machines then do the next steps of sorting, sorting out metal and glass and paper and plastics, and then the plastics themselves.

    Robotics to the rescue, with robots with artificial vision and artificial intelligence. A camera takes pictures of the oncoming junk and artificial-vision software then tries to recognize what is in it. This software then sends its recognition results to the control software for a mechanical arm, and this arm then does the sorting out.

    Such sorting robots can work quickly, doing as much as 80 items per minute, and they can work 24 hours a day, thus easily beating human sorters in strength and stamina.

    After the sorting, there is rebuilding into new items, and there is a lot of work on that.
    IBM has new technology that can recycle mixed, contaminated plastic that would have been difficult or impossible to reclaim in the past. A cotton-polyester-blend T-shirt, for example, can be transformed back into pure cotton and pure, virgin-quality polyester. A startup called Loop Industries has a pilot plant that can use chemical recycling to transform low-value plastic, even ocean plastic, into new, clean packaging for customers like PepsiCo. A new recycling plant under construction in Ohio will use a gas solvent and filtration to recycle polypropylene, or #5 plastic — something that typically isn’t recycled now, especially when it’s in something like a carpet backing — into a pure new material that can be used to make new food packaging. A biotech company in France recently demonstrated that it could use a biological process to recycle polyester T-shirts or colored plastic bottles into clear bottles.

    Biocellection, another startup, has a chemical recycling process that can turn polyethylene film — anything from plastic bags to bubble wrap to shrink wrap — into higher-value chemical intermediates that can be made into other products, from nylon to paint.
    I've even discovered Fully Recyclable Plastics Breakthrough! This Could Change Everything | CleanTechnica - a plastic that can be broken down into its monomer components and then reformed.

    There is also the challenge of designing for easy recyclability, like using the same kind of plastic as much as possible.

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    Fair dinkum thinkum bilby's Avatar
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    When recycling is cost effective, it happens whether we care or not - scrap metals have been recycled for decades.

    When consumers have to care, it's a good sign that recycling isn't worth doing - it's probably better for the environment not to bother to recycle. Put the garbage in landfills, and if, as, and when it becomes economically viable, we can dig the stuff up and separate out what we can use.

    None of our garbage is going away; We know where to find it when and if we need it. Using more energy to recycle than would have been needed to make things from virgin ores or feedstocks isn't good for the environment, it's only good for the feelings of those involved.

    We shouldn't be trashing the environment in order to make idiots feel good about themselves.

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