Cities and countries aim to slash plastic waste within a decade

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Written by Dr. Chelsea Rochman, Assistant Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Toronto and Dr. Diane Orihel, Assistant Professor, School of Environmental Studies, Queen’s University

If all goes well, 2030 will be quite a special year.

Global and local community leaders from more than 170 countries have pledged to “significantly reduce” the amount of single-use plastic products by 2030. Success would result in significantly less plastic pollution entering our oceans, lakes and rivers.

Today, societies around the world have a love affair with disposable plastics. Just like some love stories, this one has an unhappy ending that results in plastic bags, straws and takeout containers strewn about the global environment.

As researchers who study the contamination and effects of plastic pollution on wildlife, it would be nice if by 2030 we no longer heard about plastics showing up in the stomachs of dead whales, littering the beaches of distant islands and contaminating tap water and seafood.

Plastic doesn’t belong on the beach. Shutterstock

It is time for some good news about the environment, including stories about how cities and countries are managing plastics and other waste materials in more sustainable ways, and how children will have cleaner beaches to play on.

No reason to wait

Scientists have known about plastic pollution in our oceans for more than four decades. It is pervasive in rivers, lakes and soils too. Plastic pollution knows no boundaries, with small bits of plastic found from the equator to the poles and even on the remote slopes of the French Pyrenees mountains.

Plastic waste damages ecosystems, smothers coral reefs and fills the bellies of sea life. In the absence of action, the amount of plastic waste produced globally is predicted to triple between 2015 and 2060, to between 155 and 265 million tonnes per year.

As a welcome response, global leaders have decided to act. At the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi in March, environment ministers from around the world signed a voluntary commitment to make measurable reductions in single-use plastic products, including straws, shopping bags and other low-value plastic items that are sent to landfill after being used once.

Similar goals to deal with plastic pollution have been introduced by municipal, provincial, federal and regional governments across the globe. Non-profit organizations and industry leaders are making efforts to tackle the problem of plastic pollution. For example, Ocean Conservancy is uniting citizens and organizations around the world in cleanups to meet their goal of an ocean free of plastics by 2030, and Unilever has pledged to use 100 per cent recyclable packaging by 2025.

Canada joins the movement

Canada introduced the Ocean Plastics Charter at the G7 summit in 2018, committing nations to work with industry to make all plastics reusable, recyclable or recoverable by 2030. That means sending no plastic waste to landfill.

Vancouver aims to be a zero-waste city by 2040. Although the city has reduced the mass of waste going to landfill by 23 per cent since 2008, it still has a long way to go.

Ontario also has its sights on being waste-free by developing a circular economy, which means keeping materials in use for as long as possible. The province aims to cut the amount of waste sent to landfills in half by 2030, a reduction of 4.5 million tonnes, through reuse and recycling.

To propel Ontario into action, Ian Arthur, the member of the Ontario provincial parliament for Kingston and the Islands introduced a private member’s bill in March to eliminate Ontario’s use of non-recyclable single-use plastic products such as straws, coffee cups and plastic cutlery, which ultimately end up in landfills. These plastics do not feed into a circular economy.

In addition, school children in Ontario are working towards collecting 10,000 signatures on petitions to ban single-use plastics in the province.

Canadians would like to see more action against plastic waste. According to a recent poll, 90 per cent of Canadians were either very concerned or somewhat concerned about the environmental impact of plastic waste, and 82 per cent thought government should do more to reduce plastic waste.

Bye bye plastic waste

Our research, and the research of others, has found that single-use plastic products litter our beaches and coastlines, small pieces of plastics contaminate our Great Lakes and the Arctic Ocean, and microplastics are present in our sport fish and drinking water.

Ambitious global, regional and local collaborations are sorely needed to truly realize these goals. It’s time to commit to ending the love affair with disposable plastics.

Individual action does work. Quench your need for caffeine by using a reusable mug. Hydrate with water from a durable and refillable bottle. Purchase groceries that come in containers that can be reused or recycled. Plan your kid’s birthday party and your work meetings without using disposable single-use plastics.

A decade of positive habits could lead to a future where plastic is no longer waste, but valued as a material that can be reused and recycled — shifting our current paradigm to a more sustainable one that lasts far beyond 2030.



This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

About the Authors

Dr. Chelsea Rochman is an Assistant Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Toronto. Previously, she was a David H. Smith Postdoctoral Fellow at the Aquatic Health Program at the University of California, Davis. Dr. Rochman received her PhD in a joint program with San Diego State University and UC Davis in Ecology.

Dr. Diane Orihel is an Assistant Professor, School of Environmental Studies, Queen’s University, Ontario. Dr. Orihel investigates human impacts on aquatic ecosystems through large-scale, multidisciplinary and collaborative research programs. She holds a B.Sc. (Honours) in Ecology and Environmental Biology (University of British Columbia), Masters in Natural Resource Management (University of Manitoba), a PhD in Ecology (University of Alberta). She was a Banting and Liber Ero postdoctoral fellow at the University of Ottawa, and now holds the position of Queen’s National Scholar in Aquatic Ecotoxicology in the Department of Biology and School of Environmental Studies at Queen’s University.

Global Glass Recycling Market Forecast

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The glass recycling is a robust niche market that will be worth more than US$ 4.4 billion by 2025 according to a recent market study.

Based on revenue, clear cullet is likely to account for around 60% of the global recycled glass market in 2025. Clear cullet is manufactured generally from soda, beer and soft drink bottles, flat glass, as well as food packaging. The current recycling rates for glass bottles are between 50% to 80%, partly because of the significantly lower temperatures needed to melt recycled cullet compared to virgin cullet.

In 2018, the Global Glass Recycling market size was 2610 million US$ and it is expected to reach 4190 million US$ by the end of 2025, with a CAGR of 7.0% during 2019-2025.

The report on “Global Waste Recycling Services Market 2019” is a comprehensive accumulation of valuable and actionable insights. It provides an extensive assessment of the waste recycling services market, which embodies research on remarkable dynamics, such as key insights, market trends, opportunities, growth drivers, and challenges for the waste recycling services market. The report evaluates the size of the waste recycling services market in terms of value (USD Mn). The study focuses on leading players, supply chain trends, technological innovations, key developments, and future strategies.

It also offers accurate information to readers about the Global waste recycling services Market meant to help them in strategizing market moves based on the powerful insights about waste recycling services market.

The analysts at Market.us have analyzed the waste recycling services market segments, thereby, offering an explicit comparison between key market data, including the Y-O-Y growth, market share, revenue, and volume. The report also carries regional performance of waste recycling services market, dividing the market into North America, Europe, Asia Pacific, Latin America, Middle East and Africa.

Motor Oil Recycling: Barriers and Breakthroughs

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Written by Zachary Gray, B.Eng.Biosci., Chemical Engineering & Bioengineering

Motor oil changes are a sacrament in our car-obsessed modern life, while the mechanics working in the auto shops are their enforcers and evangelizers.  Every 5,000 to 8,000 kilometres, car owners begrudgingly schedule an oil change between busy work days and weekend errands.  

Primer of Motor Oil

During the 20-minute oil-change procedure, mechanics bleed the blackened, viscous motor oil from the bowels of the engine and replace it with pristine liquids from bright plastic packaging – eye-catching to some, but a far cry from the painted metal containers that furnish collector’s shelves.

Vintage Motor Oil Can, $31 (USD) on ebay

While the myriad of car oil brands available might suggest a wide variance in products, they differ only in the precise mixing of additives.  Motor lubricant is essentially 70-80% base oil with the remaining 20-30% consisting of supplements such as antioxidants, detergents, and viscosity enhancers, as well as rust inhibitors.

The quality of the motor oil degrades over time in a motor vehicle.  The build-up of debris blackens the oil, while the additive properties deteriorate over the driving cycle, dissipating heat and lubricating contact points between metal parts with less efficiency as time marches onward.  Water entrainment and oxidation of the base oil are also contributing factors.  

Changing one’s motor oil frequently, as the chorus drones on, ensures the longevity of the engine. One question remains as the mechanics dispense with the last of the used oil: what happens to it afterward?   Nothing much is often the answer. 

Motor Oil Re-refining

There are over 300 million registered vehicles in Canada and the United States alone, contributing to the nearly 2.5 billion gallons of motor oil disposed of annually throughout North America.  Of the almost 60% recovered, a mere 8% is recycled. The remainder feeds the 12 billion of gallons of lubricant reduced to toxic waste yearly.

Catastrophizing about the volumes quoted and their impact is not productive in and of itself.  Exploring ways to improve oil recycling figures is a better use of time.

In 2009, when the revered Scientific American explored whether motor oil could be recycled, the editors profiled Universal Lubricants (“UL”).  The Wichita-based company uses conventional refining techniques from upgrading crude oil when recovering the spent lubricant.  They essentially re-refine the used motor oil

UL processes over 45.4 million litres of used motor oil, or 28,600 barrels, per day.  In the re-refining process, used oil passes through a vacuum distillation unit which removes water from the base oil, accounting for 5-7% of the incoming volume. Next, contaminants are removed using an evaporation press.  In the final step, UL hydrotreats the decontaminated oil. 

Hydrotreating consists of applying high temperature and pressure (700 deg-F and 1,100 PSI) and enriching the carbon-backbone of the oil with hydrogen molecules in the presence of catalysts that aid in the chemical reactions. 

The final product resembles base oil, ready for lubricant merchants to add their additive concoctions and branding power.

Photo Credit: UL

Re-refining efforts, much like those by UL, accounts for only 10 percent of used oil management market.  The majority of used motor oil is either burned or dumped, depending on the jurisdiction and level of enforcement.  The emergence of re-refining technologies has done little in altering the outcome for spent motor oil — but why?

Barriers to Recycling

There are two main barriers to a broader adaptation of re-refining used motor oil.  The first is the capital expense in building and operating a facility on UL’s scale.  Investors should expect a final bill of tens of millions of dollars in replicating UL’s plant in Canada.  Recovering their investment is another issue: refineries derive their profits either from large volumes, amplifying small gains per unit of measurement, or upgrading cheaper base stocks.  With respect to the latter point, one could argue that the used motor oil would be a commodity instead of merely a waste product with broader market adaptation.  Such a classification diminishes the facility’s economic viability.

The second barrier to re-refining is the plant’s environmental impact.  A re-refiner has a similar environmental impact as an oil refinery.  To understand how difficult it is to get environmental approval for an oil refinery, one need to realize that the newest oil refinery in Canada is over 30 years old.

Canadian Innovation

Besides re-refining, there are innovative and arguably more feasible solutions for recycling motor oil in development.  The Ottawa-based MemPore Environmental Technologies Inc. (“MemPore”) is one such example, scaling their locally-minded, membrane-based process.

MemPore’s solution is this: the used motor oil is kept in 5,000-gallon settling tanks and periodically shipped to their regionally-based operation.  The central locations reduce the amount of pollution from transporting oil over longer distances and eases logistical challenges.  After removing contaminants during the pretreatment process, consisting of a filter, centrifuge, and flash evaporators, the oil is sent to the membrane unit.  Once polished to a quality consistent with a regular base oil, lubricant mixers take the final product and infuse it with their additives.

Cement kilns take the waste sludge separated by the membrane. The 15 metric tonnes, or 148 barrels, per day system operates at low temperatures and pressures, thus reducing its running costs and environmental impact.

Mempore Used Oil Recycling System

Alastair Samson, MemPore’s CEO, eloquently summarizes the company’s position and value proposition:

“The MemPore System can, for the first time, recover and recycle this base oil with 71% reduction in pollution, from localized systems, using low energy, and at low capital and operating cost. This is an important contribution to the clean technology movement and the preservation of earth’s natural resources.”

MemPore’s community-centric and scalable solution, with the potential for handsome profit margins, offers a tangible solution to the endemic squandering of used motor oil.  They also provide the mechanics a new hymn during drivers’ reluctant excursion to the auto body shop.

Fun with Waste: A boat made from plastic waste

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The FlipFlopi Project is an ambitious initiative with an aim to inspire positive change to support the global movement against plastic pollution.

In June 2016 the founders of the FlipFlopi Project decided to try and build a boat entirely from plastic collected on beaches and roadsides in Kenya to show the potential of ‘already-used’ plastic. And two years later, using over ten tonnes of plastic waste and 30,000 re-purposed flip flops – they succeeded. 

The world’s first recycled boat gets its name, Flipiflopi, from the 30,000 recycled flip-flops used to make its rainbow-colored hull. The FlipFlopi Project was co-founded by Kenyan tour operator Ben Morrison, and the 9 meters long multi-masted boat was built by master craftsmen Ali Skanda, and a team of volunteers using more than 10,000 tones of recycled plastic. The boat has already sailed 500 km from Lamu to Zanzibar earlier this year and it is continuing to tour around the world.

The goal of the project and is to convince people that single use plastic does not make sense and that it can be given a valuable second life. The boat is currently embarking on a number of expeditions around the Indian Ocean.

Fun with Waste: Cartons to Carpets

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Serge Attukwei Clottey is the founder of Ghana’s GoLokal performance collective. His work explores the cross-cutting themes of environmental protection and social justice. His concept of “Afrogallonism is a celebration of the yellow gallon containers, initially used as cooking oil canisters and then recycled to collect water or fuel.

Found throughout Ghana and known locally as jerrycans, the plastic containers have become synonymous with serious water shortages in Accra, and block waterways when they are discarded. Their prevalence in rural and urban communities caught Attukwei Clottey’s attention. He began imagining them as objects of art, and then came up with the concept of creating plastic carpets from them.

Garrette ClarkUN Environment’s Sustainable Lifestyles Programme Officer in the Consumption and Production Unit, said: “Sustainability is here to stay. We hear about climate change, waste and pollution every day. And, we increasingly hear how people are living in new ways that are good for people and planet. Serge Attukei Clottey is one of these new voices highlighting our plastic waste issue through his art.”

Attukwei Clottey’s idea is to tackle plastic pollution, and create a growing artistic movement to raise awareness and #SolveDifferent. We asked him what inspired him to come up with his Afrogallonism concept, and his message for young people.

What is Afrogallonism, and how did you come up with the concept?

I want to find ways to inspire people to work with plastics, and recycling it in creative ways. Afrogallonism is a word I made up after working with discarded jerrycans for fifteen years, as this type of plastic takes a long time to decay. Over time, the gallon containers have become like my second skin, and I realized that the top of the container looks like a mask. We have traditional masks, but these are like masks of our time. Afrogallonism is the new Africa—the future of Africa, bringing to the forefront issues of water scarcity and the importance of protecting our environment.

What challenges did you face along the way, and how did you overcome them?

I wanted to think of a practical approach to the critical issue of plastic waste management that brings value to the country. It’s not just about collecting plastics, but sending a powerful message back to manufacturers: waste is becoming a problem every single day. As an artist, I want to explore and create a dialogue around the plastic issue, involving corporate or government officials who can support our work so that the benefits remain in Ghana. I face many challenges—including lack of space and even lack of African representation on a global stage. Some galleries are not interested in displaying African Art. My art is now getting international recognition because black people across the world can relate to the narratives I explore. One of the biggest challenges has been getting my community to understand the importance of my work, but this is changing in Ghana.

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The carpets claim space and raise awareness of plastic waste. Photo by Serge Attukei Clottey / Afrogallonism.

Can you give us some background on the scope of your work?

I currently have about 15 young men and women working directly with me, and dozens of others who collect plastic waste materials for the project, and they are paid adequately for the work done. I can’t tell if this project is going to be the solution to plastic waste—but at least we are taking that step to act. We collect the plastic containers along coastal beaches, as well as at dump sites. You see them ending up on the streets and in the ocean. For me, the materials play a very significant role in my work and I take care in repurposing the plastic.

What are alternatives to the use of jerrycans that could help us #SolveDifferent?

Let’s focus on the product, and raise awareness among companies making plastic cartons and containers. We need to know where these plastics are coming from and for me, taking the issue up with companies producing plastic products is key. Manufacturers must have a bigger interest in where their products end up.

At the United Nations Environment Assembly, UN Environment is urging people to Think Beyond and Live Within. Join the debate on social media using #SolveDifferent to share your stories and see what others are doing towards a sustainable future for our planet.

Pyrowave, Polystyvert and GreenMantra receive National Attention for Polystyrene Recycling

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Emily Chung, Science and Technology Journalist at the CBC, recently wrote a profile article on three Canadian cleantech companies – Pyrowave, Polystyvert, and Green Mantra – that recycle polystyrene.

What is Polystyrene?

Polystyrene is a versatile plastic used to make a wide variety of consumer products. As a hard, solid plastic, it is often used in products that require clarity, such as food packaging and laboratory ware. When combined with various colorants, additives or other plastics, polystyrene is used to make appliances, electronics, automobile parts, toys, gardening pots and equipment and more.

Polystyrene also is made into a foam material, called expanded polystyrene (EPS) or extruded polystyrene (XPS), which is valued for its insulating and cushioning properties. Foam polystyrene can be more than 95 percent air and is widely used to make home and appliance insulation, lightweight protective packaging, surfboards, foodservice and food packaging, automobile parts, roadway and roadbank stabilization systems and more.

Only 35 per cent of Canadian communities accept styrofoam in their recycling programs, according to the Canadian Plastics Industry Association.

The word Styrofoam™ is often used to describe expanded polystyrene (EPS)foam; however, ‘Styrofoam’ is actually a trademarked term for closed-cell extrudedpolystyrene foam made for thermal insulation and craft applications.

The main problem with polystyrene is it’s not cost-effective to collect a material that’s so bulky and light, and breaks apart so easily, contaminating other recyclables. And there aren’t a lot of buyers once it’s collected. Many jurisdictions across Canada have to effectively pay companies to take it.

A recent report from the Canadian Chamber of Commerce found that, in 2012, 80 per cent of styrofoam waste in Canada, more than 6,500 tonnes, ended up in landfills or waterways.

That’s because most communities don’t recycle it — just 35 per cent accept polystyrene in their recycling programs, according to the Canadian Plastics Industry Association.

It’s even worse in the United States, which recycled less than four per cent of its polystyrene containers and packaging in 2012, the Environmental Protection Agency reports.

Pyrowave

Pyrowave has its Ontario headquarters in Oakville and its R&D facility in Montreal. The Pyrowave technology is a cost effective Waste-to-Feedstock technology that recycles mixed plastic waste. The company’s unique approach uses a local conversion that unzips plastics back to their initial constituents that can later be re-used to make virgin polymers and packaging.

Pyrowave’s patented technology is Catalytic Microwave Depolymerization (CMD) which uses microwaves to perform fast de-polymerization of mixed plastics with small-scale modular units capable of treating 400-1,200 tons/year on-site. The equipment converts mixed plastics with or without food contamination into predominantly oil containing valuable waxes and monomers. The products are sold to chemical companies that re-use the monomers and waxes for FDA compliant applications and therefore cost effectively closes the loop of polymers life cycle

At Pyrowave’s plant, microwaves are used to break polystyrene molecules down into styrene. (Pyrowave)

The machine can process between 50 and 100 kg per cycle and each cycle lasts 30 minutes. The modular approach allows the operator to operate many units.

Pyrowave estimates its recycling process can produce polystyrene with a tenth of the energy and half the greenhouse gas emissions of polystyrene made directly from oil, and says it can sell its styrene at a price that’s competitive with “virgin” styrene produced from crude oil.

Polystyvert

Polystyvert is a Montreal-based company that has developed a breakthrough technology for recycling polystyrene, using a dissolution process that works on all types of polystyrene: expanded, extruded and injection-moulded. The resulting recycled product is of very high quality and can easily be re-extruded or re-injected, allowing many applications to incorporate 100% recycled materials.

Polystyvert’s recycled polystyrene retains the same properties as virgin polystyrene, since the solvent does not modify the polymer in any way. Moreover, the processes are carried out at a low temperature, which keeps the molecular chain of polystyrene intact. This enables Polystyvert to attain a high-quality recycled product.

The company supplies solvent-containing concentrators to companies that can be placed on-site. By dissolving styrofoam before transportation, it says it can put 10 times more styrofoam in the same truck.

Once dissolved, it can be resolidified with another solvent, and washed and filtered multiple times to remove contaminants before being reformed into polystyrene pellets. Those can be turned back into styrofoam.

The solvents can be recycled and reused repeatedly, and so can the styrofoam itself.

Polystyvert opened a Montreal demonstration plant in June 2018 that can process 125 kilograms of polystyrene per hour or 800 tonnes a year. It gets its polystyrene from both municipalities and companies such as fridge distributors.

The polystyrene it produces is currently being sold to a company that makes insulation.

GreenMantra

GreenMantra is located in Brantford, Ontario. The company produces value-added synthetic waxes, polymer additives, and other chemicals from recycled plastics. The company uses its proprietary and patented catalytic depolymerization technology to convert polystyrene and other plastics into materials that are more valuable than the original plastic.

The company claims to be the first in the world to upcycle post-consumer and post-industrial recycled plastics into synthetic polymers and additives that meet specific performance requirements for industrial applications.

GreenMantra manufacturing facility in Brantford, Ontario

Unlike Pyrowave and Polystyvert, which are getting their raw materials for free, GreenMantra says it is choosing to actually pay money for some of the waste polystyrene it will be getting from companies and municipalities.

Next Steps

At the moment, Pyrowave, Polystyvert and GreenMantra are operating on a relatively small scale as they take measurements and tweak their technology. Polystyvert, for one, says it’s getting more offers of free styrofoam waste than it can handle.

Piling Up: How China’s Ban on Importing Waste Has Stalled Global Recycling

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Written by Cheryl Katz, Independent Science Writer

This article has been republished with the permission of Yale Environment 360, a publication of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. The original posting can be found at Yale Environment 360 website.


It has been a year since China jammed the works of recycling programs around the world by essentially shutting down what had been the industry’s biggest market. China’s “National Sword” policy, enacted in January 2018, banned the import of most plastics and other materials headed for that nation’s recycling processors, which had handled nearly half of the world’s recyclable waste for the past quarter century. The move was an effort to halt a deluge of soiled and contaminated materials that was overwhelming Chinese processing facilities and leaving the country with yet another environmental problem — and this one not of its own making.

In the year since, China’s plastics imports have plummeted by 99 percent, leading to a major global shift in where and how materials tossed in the recycling bin are being processed. While the glut of plastics is the main concern, China’s imports of mixed paper have also dropped by a third. Recycled aluminum and glass are less affected by the ban.

Globally more plastics are now ending up in landfills, incinerators, or likely littering the environment as rising costs to haul away recyclable materials increasingly render the practice unprofitable. In England, more than half-a-million more tons of plastics and other household garbage were burned last year. Australia’s recycling industry is facing a crisis as the country struggles to handle the 1.3 million-ton stockpile of recyclable waste it had previously shipped to China.

Communities across the U.S. have curtailed collections or halted their recycling programs entirely.

Across the United States, local governments and recycling processors are scrambling to find new markets. Communities from Douglas County, Oregon to Hancock, Maine, have curtailed collections or halted their recycling programs entirely, which means that many residents are simply tossing plastic and paper into the trash. Some communities, like Minneapolis, stopped accepting black plastics and rigid #6 plastics like disposable cups. Others, like Philadelphia, are now burning the bulk of their recyclables at a waste-to-energy plant, raising concerns about air pollution.

Even before China’s ban, only 9 percent of discarded plastics were being recycled, while 12 percent were burned. The rest were buried in landfills or simply dumped and left to wash into rivers and oceans. Without China to process plastic bottles, packaging, and food containers — not to mention industrial and other plastic waste — experts warn it will exacerbate the already massive waste problem posed by our throwaway culture. The planet’s load of nearly indestructible plastics — more than 8 billion tons have been produced worldwide over the past six decades — continues to grow.

“Already, we’ve been seeing evidence in the past year of the accumulation of plastic waste in countries that are dependent on exporting,” says the University of Georgia’s Amy Brooks, a Ph.D. student in engineering and lead author of a recent study on the impacts of China’s import ban. “We’ve seen increased cost to consumers, closure of recycling facilities, and ultimately decreased plastic waste diversion.”

The recycling crisis triggered by China’s ban could have an upside, experts say, if it leads to better solutions for managing the world’s waste, such as expanding processing capacities in North America and Europe, and spurring manufacturers to make their products more easily recyclable. Above all, experts say it should be a wake-up call to the world on the need to sharply cut down on single-use plastics.

Over the coming decade, as many as 111 million tons of plastics will have to find a new place to be processed or otherwise disposed of as a result of China’s ban, according to Brooks and University of Georgia engineering professor Jenna Jambeck. However, the places trying to take up some of the slack in 2018 tended to be lower-income countries, primarily in Southeast Asia, many of which lack the infrastructure to properly handle recyclables. Many of those countries were quickly overwhelmed by the volume and have also now cut back on imports.

Prior to China’s ban, 95 percent of the plastics collected for recycling in the European Union and 70 percent in the U.S. were sold and shipped to Chinese processors. There, they were turned into forms to be repurposed by plastic manufacturers. Favorable rates for shipping in cargo vessels that carried Chinese consumer goods abroad and would otherwise return to China empty, coupled with the country’s low labor costs and high demand for recycled materials, made the practice profitable.

“Everyone was sending their materials to China because their contamination standard was low and their pricing was very competitive,” says Johnny Duong, acting chief operating officer of California Waste Solutions, which handles recycling for Oakland and San Jose. Like most municipal recycling programs, those cities contract with Duong’s company to collect and sort recyclable waste at its materials recovery facility, where they are baled and sent to end-market processors. Before the ban, Duong says, his company sold around 70 percent of its recyclables to China. Now, that has fallen to near zero.

China’s action came after many recycling programs had transitioned from requiring consumers to separate paper, plastics, cans, and bottles to today’s more common “single stream,” where it all goes into the same blue bin. As a result, contamination from food and waste has risen, leaving significant amounts unusable. In addition, plastic packaging has become increasingly complex, with colors, additives, and multilayer, mixed compositions making it ever more difficult to recycle. China has now cut off imports of all but the cleanest and highest-grade materials — imposing a 99.5 percent purity standard that most exporters found all-but impossible to meet.

“Costs associated with recycling are up, revenue associated with recycling is down,” says an industry official.

“All recyclable plastics from municipal recycling programs have been pretty much banned,” says Anne Germain, vice president of technical and regulatory affairs for the U.S. trade group National Waste and Recycling Association. “It’s had a tremendous impact. Costs associated with recycling are up, revenue associated with recycling is down. And that’s not turning around in the next few weeks.”

The U.S. and Europe, where many cities have longstanding recycling collection programs, have been especially hard-hit. Decades of reliance on China had stifled development of domestic markets and infrastructure. “There are just not very easy or cost-effective options for dealing with it now,” says Brooks. “So if nothing is done to ensure efficient management of plastic waste, the cost-effective option is to send it to landfills or incineration.”

In the U.S., small town and rural recycling operations have been hit the hardest. While most continue to operate, rising costs and falling incomes are forcing some, like Kingsport, Tennessee to shut down. Others, like Phenix City, Alabama, have stopped accepting all plastics. Places like Deltona, Florida suspended curbside pickup. Residents in municipalities like these now must travel to collection points in sometimes distant locations if they want to recycle. Some are inevitably tossing their recyclables in the trash instead.

Most larger cities — such as New York, San Francisco, and Portland, Oregon — have been able to either find alternative markets or improve and expand their municipal operations to process higher-quality and more marketable materials. But many have had to make changes, including dropping some harder-to-recycle materials from their programs. Sacramento, California, for instance, halted collections of plastics labeled #4 through #7 for several months last year at the city waste operator’s request. Residents were told to discard those items in their household garbage.

“That was a real eye opener for a lot of folks who love to feel good about putting their recycling in their blue bin and then it magically turns into something else,” says Erin Treadwell, community outreach manager for Sacramento Public Works. “We wish it was that easy.” Collection there resumed in November after a public education campaign on how households should clean and sort their recyclables.

In Philadelphia last year, when the city’s waste contractor demanded higher fees for collecting and processing recycled materials, the city sent half its recyclables to a waste-to-energy plant, where they were burned to generate electricity; the rest went to an interim contractor.

Displaced Chinese companies have announced plans to open new processing plants in South Carolina and Alabama.

Simon Ellin, CEO of The Recycling Association, a UK industry group, said these countries have struggled to cope with the volume displaced by the Chinese ban and were beginning to impose their own import restrictions.

Whether China’s ban leads to increased plastic pollution in the environment remains to be seen. “The plastic is now getting diverted to countries with a high risk of improper management and high leakage rates,” says Roland Geyer, an industrial ecology professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara’s Bren School of Environmental Science and Management and lead author of a recent study on the ultimate fate of disposed plastics. Still, China, with its high volume of imports, had been the source of more than a quarter of the world’s mismanaged waste, Jambeck says. So if proper alternatives are found, plastic pollution could actually decrease.

Some options are beginning to emerge. Several U.S. materials recovery facilities are expanding operations, upgrading equipment, and adding workers to improve sorting and reduce contamination so that the materials are acceptable to more discerning buyers. Duong’s Oakland-based company — which handles paper, plastics, and some metals — has modified its equipment and devised better ways of separating materials. The company has developed new markets domestically and in places like South Korea, Indonesia, and India.

And displaced Chinese processors have announced plans to open new U.S. processing plants in Orangeburg, South Carolina and Huntsville, Alabama. The companies will shred or pelletize things like plastic food containers to make products such as artificial plants and hangers.

“There is the expectation that we’ll be able to expand domestic processing,” says Germain. “That’s the good news. [But] you don’t build a new facility overnight.”

A variety of new policies aimed at reducing plastic waste are also in the works. The European Parliament recently approved a ban on single-use plastics, including plastic cutlery, straws, and drink-stirrers. Several North American cities, including Seattle and Vancouver, and companies like Starbucks and American Airlines have taken similar actions. And many places around the world now restrict plastic shopping bags.

“Reducing the amount of waste we generate in the first place is the most important thing we can do,” says Lance Klug, information officer for California’s Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery. The agency has been working with manufacturers for the past decade to reduce the discarded packaging that makes up about a quarter of what’s in the state’s landfills, he says, adding, “We’re trying to get industry more involved in the end-of-life disposition of their products.”

Britain is planning to tax manufacturers of plastic packaging with less than 30 percent recycled materials. And Norway recently adopted a system in which single-use plastic bottle-makers pay an “environmental levy” that declines as the return rate for their products rises. The bottles must be designed for easy recycling, with no toxic additives, only clear or blue color, and water-soluble labels.


About the Author

Cheryl Katz is an independent science writer covering climate change, energy, earth sciences, and environmental health. A former newspaper reporter, she has reported from Iceland to Africa on topics ranging from new geothermal technology to rapidly warming lakes. Her articles have appeared in Scientific American, National Geographic News and Hakai Magazine, among other publications.

Kingston to Issue RFP for a MRF

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The City of Kingston, Ontario will be issuing a Request for Proposals (RFP) for the retrofit, design, and construction of a materials recovery facility (MRF). The drafting of the RFP began in earnest when City Council recently voted in favour of a new MRF and for the weekly collection of blue and grey boxes.

City council recently voted to have staff move forward with plans to change the way the city collects recycling. Requests for proposal are to be issued shortly for the retrofit, design and build of a new material recovery facility and for the weekly collection of blue and grey boxes.

Heather Roberts, director of solid waste services, explains the proposed changes that could come to the city’s recycling program in Kingston, Ont. on Tuesday, March 19, 2019. (Photo Credit: Elliot Ferguson/The Whig-Standard/Postmedia Network)

“Glass will be in the blue box with plastic containers and paper and other fibre products and plastic bags will still be in the grey box. So you would set out a grey box and a blue box,” explained Heather Roberts, director of solid waste services as reported by the Kingston Whig Standard.

The blue box would simply be tipped into one compartment on the side of the truck and the grey box would be dumped into another compartment on the side of the truck,” Roberts added. “Glass and paper are still going to be kept separate in those two different boxes and not stuck together.”

The city is studying a variety of ways to achieve its stated goal of diverting 65 per cent of household waste from landfills by 2025. The current waste diversion rate stands at about 60 per cent, a rate that has held steady for the past few years and is not expected to increase.

“The preferred approaches and enhancements to achieve and sustain 60 per cent waste diversion have been implemented, and the waste diversion rate is not expected to increase with the status quo,” according to a staff report.

City officials say they’re now exploring a raft of new measures in order to reach the 65 per cent target. Among the new trash disposal ideas being considered are:

  • an increase in the cost of garbage bag tags to encourage greater participation in the city’s diversion programs
  • the elimination of the existing one free bag per week and exploration of full user pay options, including a policy for low-income individuals
  • the prohibition of recyclables and organics in the garbage stream and the use of clear bags for garbage
  • a reduction in the frequency of garbage collection from weekly to every two weeks for most eligible properties
  • a limit on the number of additional tagged garbage bags permitted for collection

Other options on the table include reducing the number of special two-bag garbage weeks from three to two a year, increasing the size of the city’s blue and grey boxes, implementing the mandatory use of green bins at properties with multiple residences, eliminating fees and charges for schools that participate in the green bin organics program and providing two size options for green bins at either 45 or 80 litres.

City officials say the long list of options can be more easily adopted under the existing waste management system and will have a minimal impact on municipal budgets. They add that choosing how to proceed will be the focus of upcoming public consultations, however it will ultimately be up to city council to approve any new strategies.

According to data collected in 2017, the city handled 41,760 tonnes of household waste. Of that amount, 16,405 tonnes was sent to the landfill and 25,355 tonnes was diverted through recycling and compost programs.

Artificial Intelligence and Robotics could revolutionize MRFs

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Ferrovial, a global infrastructure operator and municipal services company, and EIT Climate-KIC (a public-private innovation partnership) are collaborating with start-up ZenRobotics to incorporate artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics into the company’s municipal recycling facilities (MRFs).

In accordance with a rule set last year by the European Parliament, European Union countries will have to recycle 55 per cent of all municipal waste by 2025. For context, less than 30 per cent of all waste generated in Spain was recycled in 2016. It’s therefore increasingly necessary for all potentially recoverable waste to get recycled.

While waste sorting is a highly automated process in Europe, several tasks are still carried out manually in order to sort and recover valuable materials in the waste stream. Such tasks include the quality control of recovered materials and the separation of bulky waste. Workers are exposed to risks due to direct contact with waste. Additionally, waste sorting is a job that requires repetitive movements, which are hard on the human body.

Robotics and AI are innovations uniquely poised to improve the quality of work and health conditions of employees since exposure to waste will be reduced. These innovations will also increase the rate and quality of recovered waste that will re-enter production processes as secondary raw materials, thereby reducing the demand for completely new raw materials as well as the pollution associated with the manufacturing and extraction of such raw materials. Ferrovial decided to collaborate with start-up ZenRobotics for this reason—to support the transition to a circular economy.

“The successful implementation of the ZRR for Municipal Waste project could also have a positive impact on plant workers’ jobs, which are often repetitive, unpleasant, experience high-turnover and are risky. The work will transform into automated systems management and troubleshooting—high-value jobs based on technology,” said Rafael Fernández, Director of Digital Strategy and Innovation, Ferrovial. “Automation technologies will also create new occupations that don’t exist today, much as past technologies have done.”

How does it work?

The Zen Robotics Recycler (ZRR) robot is equipped with numerous sensors, including machine vision, which continuously monitor the waste stream. The AI recognises the desired materials and the industrial robotic arms, called grippers, pick out these materials quickly and precisely.

ZenRobotics technology has been tested in construction and demolition waste sorting, where it’s achieved rates of 2,000 picks per hour per gripper and purity rates of 98 per cent in separated streams. The technology has demonstrated its capacity to separate bulky items weighing up to 30 kilograms.

However, significant differences between construction and demolition waste and municipal solid waste streams mean the technology’s implementation at a municipal waste sorting plant requires adaptation: This is what is being undertaken in the project and is the first time the technology has been applied to municipal solid waste sorting. To address this challenge, Ferrovial is working with the Wuppertal Institute for Climate Environment and Energy.

“The robot training with municipal wastes is advancing favourably,” said Vicente Galván, Director of the Center of Excellence for Environment, Ferrovial. “Some preliminary results point to a good performance of the technology. Final results can be expected in July, once the testing phase is over.”

The robot was recently installed at the Ecoparc4 plant in Els Hostalets de Pierola, Barcelona, which is managed by Ferrovial’s services subsidiary. The installed unit features two consecutive robotic arms and will initially be trained to identify up to 13 different materials. It’s envisaged that the system’s capacity will be subsequently expanded and that it will be able to identify new materials in the waste stream via updateable, smart, self-learning software. The testing and robot learning process will be carried out at the Ecoparc plant over several months.

Following the testing process, if the results are positive, the robot ZRR2 will be put into operation. The system would be installed in the bulky waste reject line above a stream that thus far hasn’t been leveraged for recovery and was being managed for landfilling. The ZRR2’s features and the waste’s characteristics make it of interest to deploy the robot, according to Ferrovial. Through implementing this system, the Ecoparc plans to recover a greater quantity of recyclables as well as new materials which to date were not recovered.

“The ZRR2 is set to become a powerful tool that contributes to ensuring the supply of essential resources in a society whose rate of growth hinders its sustainability,” said Galván.

What’s next?

If the results of the ZRR for Municipal Waste project, supported by EIT Climate-KIC, are favourable, it will enable the technology to be used on other types of waste streams, not only in the Ecoparc4 facility, but also at other Ferrovial waste sorting plants.

Additionally, the project will contribute to the quantification and qualification of circular economy impact. NTU International, a consortium partner, will perform a socio-economic and environmental analysis of the robot’s introduction in the waste treatment facility. The analysis’ results can be expected in November.

Commercialization of a recycling technology for polyesters

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Eastman Chemical Company (NYSE:EMN), headquartered in Tennessee, recently announced its intention to pursue the launch of an innovative advanced circular recycling technology that uses polyester waste which cannot be recycled by current mechanical methods, and as a result, often ends up in landfills.

Using the process of methanolysis, Eastman’s advanced circular recycling technology breaks down polyester-based products into their polymer building blocks. These building blocks can then be reintroduced to the production of new polyester-based polymers, delivering a true circular solution.

Polyester is is a manmade polymer that is a plastic. Polyester fabric is a synthetic fabric woven with threads made from polyester fibers. Polyester fibers are the product of a chemical reaction between coal, petroleum, air, and water. Not only is polyester derived from non-renewable resources, but the process of extraction from fossil fuels yields a high carbon footprint and significant byproducts. Once it has reached the end of its product life and disposed of in a landfill, polyester fabric takes decades to break down.

Methanolysis is a chemical process in which the polyester waste is mixed with methanol under pressure and higher temperatures. The resulting chemical reaction results in high-quality polyesters.

Eastman was one of the pioneers in developing methanolysis technology at commercial scale and has more than three decades of expertise in this innovative recycling process. Eastman’s experience with methanolysis makes it uniquely qualified to be a leader in delivering this solution at commercial scale. Advanced circular recycling technology can be an especially impactful solution, as low-quality polyester waste that would typically be diverted to landfills can instead be recycled into high-quality polyesters suitable for use in a variety of end markets, including food contact applications.

“We recognize that plastic waste is a complex problem that needs advanced solutions. As we have engaged potential partners, it is clear there is high interest across the entire value chain,” said Mark Costa, Eastman’s Board Chair and Chief Executive Officer. “Our long history of technical expertise in chemical processes, including methanolysis, and our leading position in copolyester chemistry, enables us to provide this innovative solution to address the growing challenges of plastic waste in our environment.”

Eastman is currently executing an engineering feasibility study on the design and construction of a commercial scale methanolysis facility to meet the demands of our customers and has engaged in initial discussions with potential partners across the value chain on the development of such a facility. The goal is to be operating a full-scale, advanced circular recycling facility within 24 to 36 months.

Eastman is a global specialty materials company that produces a broad range of products. Eastman employs approximately 14,500 people around the world and serves customers in more than 100 countries. The company had 2018 revenues of approximately $10 billion and is headquartered in Kingsport, Tennessee, USA.