We need to change the conversation on recycling.
By Thomas Maschmeyer
While individual contributions make some difference, recycling that really matters must become embedded into the global economy, from the point of resource extraction to a product’s end of life. This means we have to engage with hugely complex global material and energy flows. Although these are poorly understood, they are determining factors in our day-to-day lives.
Instead of seeing a waste problem, we should imagine a resource opportunity. If we can then shift to an economy that generates value from traditional waste, the economics will do the rest in terms of providing specific solutions for specific market opportunities.
There are already technologies that enable kerbside waste to be collected and sorted into attractive revenue streams for companies that do so. There is also mechanical recycling of plastics, such as generating new plastic bottles from old ones. Other products, such as decking and outdoor furniture, can be made from less well-defined plastic waste streams through compounding techniques.
Solids such as glass can be sorted by colour and made into new glass products. Lower-quality mixed broken glass, depending on the amount and type of processing used, can be made into aggregate fillers for roads or used for concrete instead of the sand we use that is dredged our river systems.
Metals, too, can be recovered for reprocessing in a process that is significantly cheaper and less carbon-intensive than mining ore. Aluminium recycling is one of the real success stories here.
Missing from this mix is the recycling of all end-of-life plastic into new materials or as inputs for new materials, such as industrial waxes, lubrication oils, solvents, or as inputs for refineries to make new plastics or fuels. This has become an urgent matter with China and other countries stopping the import of waste plastics.
My own company, Licella, which uses a catalysis technology developed with support from the University of Sydney, is capable of accepting these very-hard-to-process mixed plastics, even if they still contain plastic sheeting, films, some cardboard, paper and even glue.
Based on our commercial demonstration plant at Somersby near Gosford, we are preparing to build Australia’s first chemical recycling plant for end-of-life mixed plastic in partnership with our joint venture partner iQRenew, which already collects and recycles waste for the Central Coast Council.
Our vision is to roll this out across the country.
All these technologies are a great start, but they are still piecemeal. To really shift our approach from one of problem management to one of resource opportunity, recycling needs to be consciously embedded into our economic and social processes.
At present recycling is “added on” to the end of an industrial process. Sorting your rubbish at home is a great start, but we need an industrial-scale rethink for solutions throughout the economy.
While the technical hurdles for this new wave of recycling have largely been overcome, regulatory issues persist. These are a problem for the recycling industry as standards are often defined in terms of “new” raw materials, not recycled ones.
For example, freshly dredged sand is considered of higher quality compared to purpose-processed broken glass – even though the performance is the same.
To really unlock the benefit from our waste, we need to re-examine our regulations and bring them up to date.
This will allow Australian innovation to ensure we can access the resources of tomorrow, which is the waste of today.
Professor Thomas Maschmeyer is a chemist at the University of Sydney and co-founder of Licella.
First published at the Sydney Morning Herlad Wednesday 2 October 2019. See; https://www.smh.com.au/national/recycling-is-not-a-waste-problem-it-s-a-resource-opportunity-20190930-p52w8h.html
For more on Catalytic Hydrothermal Reactors and Licella see: http://Catalytic Hydrothermal Reactor
For more on how Sweden is turning waste into clean energy see; https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/21/climate/sweden-garbage-used-for-fuel.html