Recycling is one of the fundamental pillars of sustainability, alongside the reduced usage of raw materials and reusing what you already have instead of purchasing something new. There are many materials out there that can be recycled and repurposed to create new objects. Plastics, glass, metal, and paper are the most common, but there’s an increasing focus on recycling e-waste and apparel as well. And while recycling is fantastic in theory, it’s important to note that it’s only effective if performed correctly.
Is this the case in the world today? Or are recycling practices mostly chaotic, which in turn impacts the effectiveness of sustainable initiatives?
The broad picture
Roughly 300 million tonnes of waste are recycled every year across the world, the rough equivalent of 740 Empire State buildings. But things have changed since December 31st, 2017, when China, the country with the largest plastic recycling capacity in the world, shut its doors to recycling imports, citing health and safety threats, as well as environmental concerns. As such, both China and Hong Kong went from getting 60% of the plastic waste exports to less than 10% in the span of just one year.
Investigations showed that the recycling environment is marked by misunderstandings and disruption, which has led many to question how well things are going. Household recycling is often cited, but there are problems at the business level. Most of them stem from the lack of awareness and education regarding the correct disposal of plastics. Many companies have switched to ballpress solutions in order to manage their waste. These devices can be rented, leased or bought, and they come in different sizes, so they are equipped to handle the demands of diverse businesses.
The world produces almost 400 million tonnes of plastic yearly, with up to 50% being entirely single-use and never recycled. And while the timeframe during which they’re used is diminutive, the materials will remain intact and pollute the ground, food and water sources for millennia.
So, what exactly happens to recycled materials after they’re tossed away? In the beginning, they are sorted based on different categories depending on the material. For plastics, this involves separating them into different colours and types. Any non-recyclable items are removed immediately to prevent contamination and make the final recycled product unusable or of poor quality.
There are two main sorting techniques that can be used or combined during the sorting process:
- Manual picking: Sorting the plastics by hand involves careful removal of any non-recyclables or other items that can be sent for processing as well or be disposed of
- Trommels: These devices are essentially cylindrical drums that rotate in order to allow the finer materials to fall off
Plastics of different thickness, size and colour aren’t reprocessed together, as the resin is fundamentally different. This part of the process makes recycling more efficient since it is based on the properties of the material. Washing is also crucial since it removes any leftover impurities. This can include particles and residue created by dirt or paper labels. It also eliminates adhesives or other chemicals that could hinder the recycling process. Without washing, the quality of the finished product could be compromised.
Shredding or otherwise resizing the plastics follows right after. Plastic cannot be recycled in its original form since many objects are likely to be bulky and tough to work with. To simplify the process, materials must be placed into shredders in order to turn the plastic into smaller fragments. This way, processing becomes more comfortable and efficient. Then, it’s time for another identification and separation step, during which the particles undergo more comprehensive testing.
The traditional process involves melting the plastics and then reprocessing them into new products through the use of a method known as injection moulding. This process permits the creation of a wide variety of products, from the inconspicuous bottle caps to larger machinery components, electronics, furniture and specific products that are used by different industry sectors, such as agriculture. The melting and repurposing take up a considerable amount of energy, more than any of the previous steps.
Metals have a similar process, as they are chopped, heated to remove their coating completely, and then heated again to melt completely. The molten material is poured into ingots, oblong blocks that are later rolled into flat sheets to create brand-new metal products. Metals are typically infinitely recyclable, so it’s imperative that they don’t end up in landfills.
Paper is cleaned to remove any plastics, glue, staples and ink and then turned into a substance resembling a slurry in consistency. Glass is also sorted based on colouring, crushed, blended with soda ash, limestone and sand and melted to make new jars and bottles. Textiles are sometimes simply shredded in order to make filling for car or roof insulation, furnishing padding or panel linings. They can also be combined with other fabrics and spun for future weaving or knitting of new clothing.
E-waste is highly valuable because the products use rare metals, some of which can be very harmful to the environment and human health. Even the recycling of these components can be hazardous for the workers. The central processing units typically contain cadmium, lead and brominated flame retardants. Mercury, hexavalent chromium, sulphur, beryllium oxide and polyvinyl chloride are some of the other toxic substances that can be released during recycling.
They can create a wide range of health problems in those who are exposed to them that range in severity. Damage to the nervous system, lung or kidney damage, damage to cell membranes, throat and eye irritation, heart damage and chronic disease have been documented.
What does the future hold for recycling? While it’s certain that the process is not wholly foolproof in many areas, eliminating it would be a huge mistake since it would make way for the accumulation of even higher quantities of rubbish in landfills. The fact that recycling is more complicated than initially predicted might also force consumers to deal with the reality of overconsumption and the neglect of reusing and reducing as fundamental factors in the fight against global warming.