“This didn’t happen overnight. China didn’t wake up and say, ‘We’re not taking your material anymore. Get out of here.’ And then boom, recycling was in crisis. This has happened with a series of events over time.” – Alita Kane, The Recycling Partnership

If you follow environmental news, you may have read opinion pieces saying recycling is past its prime as a valuable eco tool, or even dead as means to a better future for the planet. At the EarthX 2019 Expo during a discussion titled, “The Future of Recycling,” panelist Alita Kane, community liaison, The Recycling Partnership, said in order to think about the future people need to think about the present.

Several developments led to the current attitude toward recycling according to Kane, including a move to a single recycling cart rather than sortable bins for consumers without the necessary education on what should go into that cart as well as a move toward plastic packaging that isn’t as easy to recycle. Both of these caused more contamination – items in the cart that shouldn’t be there – which made recycling less efficient.

But the single most important change impacting the future of recycling is China no longer taking waste from the U.S. to recycle. For the last 25 years the U.S. has shipped its recycling to China. That ended in March 2018 and China is holding firm to ending importing all recycling by 2020.

Technology to the rescue

Plastics are a real recycling challenge, but technological innovation in chemical and solvent-based recycling which is already happening in Europe and the U.S. is meeting that challenge. The traditional process when recycling plastics is taking what Jordan Fengel with the State of Texas Alliance for Recycling(STAR), and a self-described recycling “futurist,” described as an “urban landfill item” and pelletizing that material to then undergo further processing for it to become useful in manufacturing once again.

With chemical recycling, the plastics go into a heated process and the outcome is a fuel wax with virgin-like quality for manufacturers. Solvent-based recycling breaks plastics down to the molecular level creating a virgin-quality end product. During the process, PETs — polyethylene terephthalate plastics – go into a green chemical bath and come out broken down into usable raw material. Inks and plasticizers are separated out and every element in the original material is returned to its original state.

Chemical and solvent recycling can also help solve the polystyrene (Styrofoam) recycling issue.

There are also major advancements in metal recycling according to Jason Avery, vice president western division, EMR USA. The big change is the size of the material coming out of the processing residue. Just seven years ago anything smaller than ¾ inch in the residue went to the landfill. Today that is down to less than one millimeter meaning more of every car, appliance or other metal sent for recycling processing is being reused rather than sent to the landfill.



Robots and AI

Fengel also sees robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) as game changers in the future of recycling. Right now some facilities are using robots to sort and pick items off a line rather than people. And by applying AI and deep learning, the robots are able to improve performance. For example, as a robot sees more items in different states, such as smashed, it teaches itself to recognize those materials based on its prior experience and becomes better at sorting. And unlike its human counterpart, robots on the sorting line don’t need air conditioning and can run 24 hours a day.

What this achieves is recycling processors can then better utilize the human workforce, such as sending them into the field to teach people about the recycling process, operations at the facility become smoother and better at sorting materials, and contamination is reduced. This means the material that gets to processers is clean and doesn’t require additional sorting.

“The future of robotics is going to go hand in hand with material circulation and recovery and also processing,” said Fengel about the AI- and robot-driven future of recycling.

What do all these developments mean in the big picture? The final major change in recycling today is innovation, along with the move by China to end its importing recycling, has led to boom in development in U.S. recycling from both domestic and foreign investment.

The future of recycling is full of tech innovation and promise … and robots.