Advanced Recycling Has Waste Plastic’s Number

Image courtesy of Alamy/Skorzewiak chasing arrows in futuristic green hue
Currently not all plastics are easily recycled or worth the ROI to do it, but three things are bringing the circular economy closer to fruition — artificial intelligence, a plastics-eating enzyme, and, yes, boundless inventory.

Much as the internet of things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), and cryptocurrency are morphing into something different by the day, the recycling industry is busy with its own version of Transformers as it comes to terms with the need to recycle all seven plastics types.

Public perception has it that we’re drowning in plastic waste: We are told that the oceans will contain by weight more plastic than fish by 2050 and that we ingest the equivalent of a credit card (5 g) of plastic each week.

In spite of the best efforts of the media, politicians, and legislators to maintain their fear-based dogma, a bit of research puts the lie to these statements. The myriad reasons for such false narratives are beyond the scope of this article.

San Francisco-based Brightmark founder and CEO Bob Powell sums up the exciting future that lies ahead for all seven plastic types. He states that because of their chemical make-up, “plastics 3 to 7, in particular, are not easily recycled with other technologies, and typically end up in landfills, incinerators, or, sadly, in our oceans. We’re proud to have a proven, breakthrough closed-loop solution for transforming these raw materials back into useful products.”

Brightmark is seeking 2.4 billion pounds of plastic waste per year from suppliers across the United States in 2022. For perspective, 1.4 billion pounds were exported during the whole of 2019. Firms who want to play in this space are advised to have their supply chains humming, because Brightmark accepts no less than 2 million pounds per supplier.

Rapid evolution of plastics recycling

Plastics recycling technology is evolving rapidly and promises to make the circular economy a reality. What has wrought this miracle? Three things: Artificial intelligence (AI), PETase, and virtually unlimited sources of these formerly unrecyclable plastics that now will serve a higher purpose than to befoul our city streets, waterways, and oceans.

As outlined in a paper published in the April issue of Nature, a team of researchers at the University of Texas at Austin has utilized AI to create a plastics-eating enzyme called PETase. It has the ability to return plastic to its original polymer form potentially within hours while reducing energy requirements and greenhouse gas emissions in the process. AI has also super-charged the recognition sorting process, so that recycling facilities can speed through the mountains of polymers at a much faster rate and more accurately.

A major benefit of this mutated process allows it to work at relatively low (50 to 60*C) temperatures, with some applications even able to work their magic at room temperature. This is very encouraging for the near future and beyond.

Going mobile

Significantly, the biological element coupled with ambient operational temperatures enables the application to go mobile and has huge ramifications for expanding its efficiency. “When considering environmental cleanup applications, you need an enzyme that can work in the environment at ambient temperatures,” Hal Alper, one of the paper’s authors, said.

Compact recycling stations now can be trucked directly to waste-producing hotspots to gobble up the incoming deluge. Landfills that previously were dead-end destinations for all plastic types as well industrial sites that produce large volumes of plastic waste are now fair game. Alper added, “This requirement is where our tech has a huge advantage in the future.”

Inconsistent messaging

One area of the industry needing a major upgrade is communications. Inconsistent waste management services and confusing regulations across communities continue to hamstring all sectors of recycling. For example, a residential neighborhood may have a service pick-up once a week while residents on the other side of the same street have to haul their recyclables to a local materials recovery facility (MRF), or worse, discard them in the trash that will end up in the local landfill.

Cost is another area of concern as many communities don’t have the budget for a separate fleet of trucks dedicated solely to recyclables collection. Moreover, even the chasing-arrows-triangle found on plastic products can be misleading.

These arrows imply the plastic is recyclable, but it may not be. The small number inside the triangle tells the real story. Got a #1 or #2? Those can be recycled. What about a #3 or a #5? Likely not in most jurisdictions, but maybe. It comes down to what local regulations allow and the MRFs will accept.

The Association of Plastic Recyclers confirms a lag in regulatory consistency nationwide. “Plastics in today’s waste stream come in a wide variety of resins and forms. Collection practices of plastics for recycling also vary greatly. Unfortunately, without plastic sorting standards, these valuable waste sorts do not necessarily result in consistent or comparable data for broad optimization across multiple programs nationwide.”

Many weak links remain in the value chain. What continues to condemn much of the waste to the incinerator or landfill is lack of a viable market where it can be bought and sold. The technology and the MRFs are ready and waiting, but if they can’t make a profit, they’re not going to play.

30 by 30?

Because of these industry fallibilities, is it realistic to foresee 30% of all plastics being recycled by 2030 when we are currently realizing only 5 to 10%? A tall order, indeed, to fulfill in the next eight years. But all signs point to hitting that goal.

Innovative technologies expanding by the day are resulting in lower energy costs and more efficient processing through chemical application. More accurate regulatory policy leading to better messaging and community collection, and now mobile capabilities, are becoming stronger links in the value chain for all seven plastics types.

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