The future of recycling

Advances in the processing of paper, plastic and metal are causing major developments in environmental sustainability – and these innovative techniques improve social value.

A major priority for EU Governments is to develop more efficient recycling technologies, so as to increase sustainability. Major developments are being made in the fields of paper and plastic, and when it comes to aluminium, even the foil used in laminate packaging will soon be recyclable. What are these new technologies, and what do they mean for a sustainable future?

Paper sludge is a waste product from paper recycling, and over 25 million tonnes of it is produced each year worldwide. With such huge quantities being generated, disposing of it costs a lot. But a new technique, Controlled Thermal Conversion, ensures that heat energy and materials are extracted from paper sludge, thereby reducing costs and decreasing the fuel demands in the paper mill. The sludge is processed at a controlled temperature that evaporates the water, incinerates carbon compounds, and converts what’s left to calcium products that can be used in construction – with no further treatment required.

Plastic fantastic

Approximately only 50% of plastic bottles, such a common item in many people’s shopping baskets, are currently recycled. A large recycling facility in Lincolnshire opened in May 2012 to recycle plastic bottles and is going to extend its operations to deal with the difficult area of recycling substances such as yoghurt pots, and the dark plastic trays and protective film that are used in ready meals. Integrating the recycling of these polymers with plastic bottles will mean that an extra 15,000 tonnes of packaging will be recycled every year – almost double the current UK amount!

Minimum aluminium waste

Aluminium is an effective barrier, and as a packaging material, it is popular with consumers; indeed, 99% of aluminium packaging is for the consumer market. If used in developing countries, it would solve a major problem: 30% of food in such countries goes to waste because of inadequate packaging. It is easily recyclable and reusable again and again, so it makes sense for governments in Europe and elsewhere to focus on developing more efficient technologies for these purposes. Certainly, recycling it is a priority for European and other governments.

Last year, in Germany, a new aluminium recycling and casting centre opened. This sorts and processes waste aluminium and will produce 400,000 metric tonnes of aluminium every year – all of it from recycled material.

Of course, not all aluminium packaging is aluminium alone. It is combined with plastics to make laminates, and until recently, these laminates were unable to be recycled – they went either to landfill or the incinerator. This year, a plant in Luton will use a technique called ‘microwave-induced pyrolysis’ to separate the aluminium from the plastics and process it. The recovered aluminium will be used in new products, and the plastic residue will be used to generate energy.

Increasing social value

Clearly, the technological processes described above are evidence of some major advances in the way that materials are recycled. These advances take a lot of work and a lot of funding, from the design stage to implementation. Recycling Lives is pleased that governments and other organisations are committed to sustainability, because everyone needs to work together to ensure that as much material is reused and recycled as possible.

Recycling Lives is also committed to innovative ways to deal with waste products in a sustainable way. Like paper sludge, waste plastics can also be used to make materials for use in the construction industry, and the Recycling Lives social business has developed processes to make “I-beams” from recycled polymers. These are strong, and they eliminate the need for wood to be used – thus saving trees.

New technology also means more jobs, and these new advances should mean increased employment in the areas in which the processing plants are located – which adds social value to these areas. Having a positive effect on the community, the economy and the environment is at the core of Recycling Lives, which has a strong commitment to Corporate Social Responsibility. Through metal and waste recycling, it provides employment to individuals who are being supported by the Recycling Lives social welfare charity – and during their employment, they receive training, which increases their ability to do their jobs well, learning valuable skills in the process. All the individuals supported by the charity are homeless or at risk of homelessness, and working with Recycling Lives helps them on the path back to independence. Providing innovative recycling solutions is good for more than just the environment.