How technology is changing the face of recycling

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Technology has the potential to change everything. Rewind the clock just a few decades and there was no World Wide Web, no internet, no mobile phones. It’s fair to say it was a very different world to what it is now.

And, just like any industry, recycling has been subject to seismic shifts in technology that has allowed us to become more responsible and more aware of what we use, what we waste and what we do about it.

Where it all began

Whilst recycling has taken place in many forms in societies over the centuries, it was in the 1960’s when recycling first became more commonplace and the consumer began to engage with the principles behind it. Drinks companies began to offer money back for returning glass bottles and it was in 1977 that the UK’s first bottle bank was introduced.

In 1970 the UK recycling rate was around 3% and, over the next decades, more investment and investigative research was made to ascertain how consumers and businesses could begin to be more responsible for their waste and how they could recycle it.

2003 saw the inception of the Household Waste Recycling Act, a law that required local authorities in England to provide every household with a separate collection of at least two types of recyclable materials by 2010 and now, green bins, blue bins, brown bins and bottle boxes are commonplace in local council kerbside recycling schemes.

Where we are now

Now, recycling has become big business. Consumers are demanding that companies provide goods in recyclable packaging, major supermarkets are actively researching ways in which they can fulfil this and eradicate single use plastics and other materials from their supply chains.

Furthermore, there is an increasing awareness of the impact that choosing not to recycle has on the environment, climate change and the planet. It is this awareness, and the way that programmes such as those by David Attenborough, has driven this awareness that has brought the issue front and centre for consumers.

This has resulted in a wider global awareness as to how we minimise waste, how the waste we do have is recycled responsibly, and that we all have to become responsible for the waste we generate as individual, companies and nations.

What does the future hold?

The future could be fantastic on the recycling front, but this is where we have to get it right. ‘No Time to Waste’ a report by Policy Connect states ‘Until we reach a point where we no longer produce residual waste, we need to be managing it in the most efficient way’.

For us, this vision also means finding new ways of dealing with hard to recycle waste and improving the recycling rate of the UK which is currently at 45%, with a target of 50% being achieved during 2020.

As constraints on exporting hard to recycle materials look set to be implemented in the future, this such materials need a new outlet to be recycled, reused or repurposed.

Pyrolysis, an under explored technology that remains somewhat of a mystery to many, is a process in which hard to recycle and hard to treat materials such as end of life tyres, bio-waste, RDF and other plastic based materials can be placed through a thermal process and by products such as oil, gas and carbon char produced that can then be used to generate energy or in further manufacturing processes.

Its greatest appeal is that it has no detrimental effect on the environment, uses every part of the sorted materials, and does not generate any further waste making it truly suitable in a circular economy principle.

Imagine a world where the hard to recycle materials we generated was then used to provide power, heating and cooling for our homes, schools, businesses and factories, and that landfill was minimised to levels never seen before. Could pyrolysis be the starting point?