New frontiers and costs of recycling

By Catherine
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Written by Catherine Bolgar

open dumpster full of trash

Are we recycling all we could? Organic waste, such as food scraps and yard trimmings, accounts for between a quarter and a third of the solid waste generated in cities—the largest single municipal waste stream, according to Eric A. Goldstein, waste expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council in New York.

If you had to identify one key area of growth for recycling, it would be organics,” he says.

Organic waste in landfills becomes mummified or decomposes anaerobically (i.e. without oxygen), producing methane, a greenhouse gas whose impact on climate change is estimated to be 25 times greater than that of carbon dioxide.

Composted organic waste though becomes a natural fertilizer that helps soil retain moisture and hold carbon. A University of California Berkeley study found that a single application of compost led to a metric ton of carbon capture and storage per hectare annually, for three years.

However, “composting if done well isn’t cheap,” says Glenda Gies, principal of Glenda Gies & Associates Inc., an Ontario-based recycling consultancy. “It requires the right temperature, moisture levels and bacteria populations.”

There’s also the question of who’s responsible for the recycling. With plastic or electronics products, the brand is usually identifiable, even on discarded goods. The manufacturer may then be legally required to recycle them. But by the time organics become waste it’s no longer clear who the brand owner is, and recovery costs then pass to the municipality, consumer or business, “who have been reluctant to pay,” Ms. Gies says.

This hasn’t deterred some city and state authorities from taking a lead. San Francisco has introduced mandatory separate collection of compostable materials, which applies to all residences and businesses, says Kevin Drew, residential and special projects zero-waste coordinator at the city’s department of environment. Massachusetts banned food waste disposal by companies in 2014, sending organics to 49 processors.

Once there, organic waste is processed into methane through digesters (like at sewage treatment plants). And unlike landfills where the methane escapes, the digesters trap it and convert it into natural gas, while the residue is turned into compost. San Francisco and its service provider are building digesters, with the resulting gas used to fuel collection and transfer vehicles, Mr. Drew says.

There’s complete recovery of the energy and compost value in the waste,” he says. “I would argue that this program will be coming to every city in the world.”

colored clothingOther materials also have strong recycling potential. Only 15% of used clothes, towels, bedding and other textiles in the U.S. is donated or recycled, according to the Council for Textile Recycling, with the rest ending up in landfills. In the U.K., about 40% of clothing is re-used or recycled. But more can be done.

“There’s an enormous amount of textiles that are recoverable as clothing,” says Mr. Drew. “There are markets around the world that will take that material. We’re on a quest to recover more textiles.

Cost is key. With traditional recycling streams, such as paper, plastics and glass, changes in technology and commodity prices affect the willingness to recycle.

“Companies want to recycle to save money,” says John Daniel, president of Federal International Inc., a St. Louis recycling firm. “In general, companies will increase recycling to the point where it costs them money, and then they stop.”

Recycling bin with glassConsider glass recycling. When collected along with other waste materials, broken glass has to be sifted out at sorting facilities. This may have been worth doing when glass prices were high, but today, “at many facilities, it’s not cost effective to separate out that glass. A significant amount of glass put in recycling doesn’t get recycled,” he says.

Similarly, “when the price of oil was much higher, carpet was able to be recycled,” he notes. “Now it is almost impossible to recycle without the cost being higher than landfilling. The cost of recovering, transporting and processing the material is significantly higher than the value of the material.”

Virgin products may seem cheaper, Ms. Gies says. But if one were to factor in environmental costs—reflected in, say, greenhouse-gas taxes or obligations on manufacturers to recycle returned products—the resulting higher price might be more realistic, and potentially uncompetitive.

“The industry naturally will recover all material demand, provided it is cost effective,” Mr. Daniel explains. “As the price goes up, then recyclers have the ability to dive in deeper and start recovering higher-cost material. The best way to increase recycling rates is to improve the demand for products made from recycled materials. Our industry will take care of filling the supply.”

 

Catherine Bolgar is a former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe. For more from Catherine Bolgar, contributors from the Economist Intelligence Unit along with industry experts, join the Future Realities discussion on LinkedIn.

Photos courtesy of iStock

How can technology protect natural resources?

By Alyssa
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In recent years, due to growth in places like China and India and increasing urbanization, demand for natural resources has dramatically increased. Natural resources companies are under pressure to provide the materials to feed that growing appetite – while at the same time protecting the environment and local communities where the resources are found. Because these resources can take millions of years to replace, it’s critical to be very aware of where the resources are so that we can understand the available inventory and the costs of extracting them.

Marni millions of years-001
 

In a new video produced by Wall Street Journal Custom Studios for 3DS’s LinkedIn community, Future Realities, Dassault Systèmes Vice President of Natural Resources, Marni Rabasso, explores how technology can address these concerns. Click here to watch the 3-minute video and then jump over to LinkedIn to comment!

It’s a Wrap

By Catherine
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Written by Catherine Bolgar


Whether you like them or not, eggs, cheese, mushrooms or shrimp are likely to be part of your future shopping basket—as the raw materials in a new kind of plastic packaging.

New materials promise not only to reduce our reliance on petroleum products such as plastic, they also cut waste. Packaging accounted for more than 75 million tons (or 30%) of solid waste in the U.S. in 2013, while the European Union generates around 79 million tons of packaging waste annually.

However, waste from the agriculture industry is now being turned into biodegradable packaging materials. For example, Kirsi S. Mikkonen, a researcher at the University of Helsinki, is developing packaging films made from hemicelluloses, byproducts of the forestry industry and agriculture.

Cellulose, the part used by industry, makes up only 40% to 50% of wood, while hemicellulose and lignin each account for about 30%. Hemicelluloses can be retrieved from wood chips or, in thermo-mechanical mills, from wastewater.

Dr. Mikkonen converts the hemicelluloses into films that act as an effective barrier against oxygen. Edible films could protect food from drying out or spoiling, or even within food, to separate pizza crust from sauce. By coating paperboard with the films, she can make plastic-type containers.

Hemicelluloses and lignin can also be used in aerogels, which are porous and light but strong.

“When you put an aerogel in water, it acts like a sponge,” Dr. Mikkonen says. “It absorbs water and you can press it out, and it recovers its shape. We could make something like a soft pillow that could absorb moisture or drips from meat, or it could release active compounds and be used as active packaging.”

Innovations in active packaging abound. The Fraunhofer Research Institution for Modular Solid State Technologies in Munich has developed a sensor film that detects molecules called amines that are released when meat or fish starts to spoil. As amines build up, the sensors turn from yellow to blue, indicating the level of spoilage. Many companies now sell labels and films that keep fruits and vegetables fresh by absorbing ethlyene.

Egg whites could provide another form of active packaging. Alexander Jones, a researcher at the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia, mixed the egg-white protein albumin with glycerol to create a plastic with antibacterial properties.

Albumin plastic could be used for food packaging, to decrease spoilage. It could also be mixed with conventional plastic to add antibacterial properties to medical products, says Suraj Sharma, associate professor at the University of Georgia’s College of Family and Consumer Sciences.

Another reason to mix in conventional plastic is that albumin plastic is too brittle to be used alone for, say, a catheter tube, which needs flexibility, Dr. Jones says.

He also tested plastics made from soy and whey proteins. Soy proteins had no antibacterial properties—“it actually fed bacteria,” he says. Whey proteins mixed with glycerol made antibacterial plastic, but whey plastic minus glycerol acted like soy-based plastic, promoting bacteria growth.

The protein-based plastics have other advantages. They compost quickly, and the manufacturing process uses lower temperatures than for petroleum-based plastics, thereby saving energy. Whey, a byproduct of cheese processing, requires treatment before disposal, so diverting it into plastics would be a boon.

For now, egg whites are far more expensive than polyethelyne. But Dr. Jones believes that we might tap waste streams to get cheaper raw materials.

Egg producers have eggs they don’t ship for various reasons,” Dr. Jones says. Using those “would reduce waste and also not compete with food as an end use.”

Shrimp shells are another waste source that can be turned into plastic. Harvard University researchers have turned chitin, a polysaccharide found in crustacean shells, into a strong, transparent material called shrilk, which can be used to make plastic bags, packaging and even diapers.

Meanwhile, Ecovative, a packaging company in Green Island, N.Y., uses mushrooms as the key ingredient in its compostable packaging. The root structure of a mushroom, called mycelium, acts like a glue. A mix of mycelium and agricultural byproducts is molded into different shapes, replacing styrofoam for example.

Packaging today is essential for society to function,” Dr. Mikkonen says. “We need packaging to deliver food from the maker to the retailer and then to the consumer. But it produces lots of waste. It’s really important to develop some biodegradable alternatives.”

 

Catherine Bolgar is a former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe. For more from Catherine Bolgar, contributors from the Economist Intelligence Unit along with industry experts, join the Future Realities discussion.

Photos courtesy of iStock



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