Contamination is a major problem for the recycling industry. More than half the content of recycling bins ends up in landfill or the ocean, so a rethink is needed.
Very soon the option of shipping recycling waste overseas for processing will be closed off. In February 2018, China effectively ended imports of scrap, and there are imminent similar moves from Indonesia, India and the rest of south-east Asia.
The issue is simple: we must deliver pure material. These can then be reformed easily into packaging or a product of equal quality in a closed loop, ensuring the longevity of any material. But ensuring that used materials are 100% pure is easier said than achieved.
Millions have been spent on educating households and influencing recycling behaviour. However, despite fantastic equipment in modern MRFs and concerted efforts by stakeholders, the contamination level of household output remains too high.
At all stages under the current system, it seems the cost to reduce contamination is higher than the sale value of processed material. So, is the current domestic recycling system financially and environmentally sustainable? Will more of the same medicine – education and enhanced MRF performance – fix the problem?
When the system does not work, throwing more taxpayer money at the problem must be brought in question.
So, what is the alternative? The key to purity of material is never letting two used materials of different substances be put together. The only way that can be achieved is sensor or machine checking, not human sorting, of incoming waste before it is accepted.
The next step is to process the now high-purity waste so it can be stored efficiently for a length of time. ‘High-purity’ means washing; ‘efficiently’ entails space minimisation such as grinding, granulating and compacting.
Pure, clean and efficiently stored products can then be transferred for reuse.
In the past decade, on-demand home or business pick-up and drop-off systems have been improved dramatically in terms of efficiency and cost reduction. We have Uber for humans and Amazon for parcels. A similar logistical model could be applied to collecting valuable closed-loop recycled products from homes and businesses.
This would deliver a truly circular economy and will be a boon for households, consumers, the recycling industry, manufacturers and, importantly, the environment.
Aldous Hicks is chief executive and co-founder of ReCircle Recycling