‘Back to the Future’ With New Recycling Technologies

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In a world that’s continuously moving forward, everyone is working to create the next up-and-coming product. Beyond cars and gadgets, the race for the greatest new technology is a constant challenge in the recycling industry. Many companies, scientists, and environmental groups are working to construct better recycling processes and machines, as well as create new systems for previously non-recyclable materials.

Now On the Scene

Here’s a quick overview of what’s been hot during the past two years:

Tires: EarthFirst!, an environmental group known for its bold actions, engineered a new proprietary tire processing system in 2006. This system will produce valuable products such as steel, carbon, high energy gas and oil, as well as effectively recycle tires. The difference between the new and old method is that the tires are burned at one third of the temperature needed for pyrolysis. This satisfies very strict emissions regulations and preserves tire components. Here’s another way to look at it: from a typical 20-pound passenger tire, one gallon of oil, 30 cubic feet of combustible gas, eight pounds of carbon and two pounds of steel can be recovered. Currently, this recycling system is occurring at a plant in Mobile, Ala. and recycling roughly twelve million tires per year.

Circuit Boards: Printed circuit boards, or PCBs, contribute roughly 3 percent of all electronic waste and have been known to be difficult to recycle. In August 2008, scientists in China developed a method to reuse resins and fibers from PCBs that previously were deemed worthless. The metallic components of circuit boards, such as aluminum and copper, have traditionally been recycled; however, the nonmetallic materials are typically sent to landfills for disposal.

Image courtesy of timeguy.com

Image courtesy of timeguy.com

Waste PCBs first go through a two-step crushing process, followed by electrostatic separating, which is the sorting of solid particles by means of electric forces. The nonmetallic materials are separated out, pulverized and then mixed with resin and polystyrene. This substance is then heated and pressed into sheets of material. The material can be used to create products like fences, sewer grates and park benches. Researchers also believe it could be a substitute for wood, as it is almost as tough as reinforced concrete.

Styrofoam: Interestingly enough, it seems there’s always a way to bring everything back to nature: bacteria appear to be the answer to recycling polystyrene foam, commonly known as Styrofoam. Over 14 million metric tons of Styrofoam is produced annually, most of which previously ended up in landfills due to the lack of an efficient system for recycling it.

In 2006, scientists at the University College Dublin found a bacterium that eats polystyrene foam and turns it into a useable plastic. The foam first must be heated without the presence of oxygen and converted into styrene oil. Then, it is fed to the bacteria who convert it into PHA, a biodegradable plastic. Like most plastics, PHA is resistant to oil, heat and grease and lasts a long time. It can be used to create packaging film and plastic forks. Unlike polystyrene foam, it is able to biodegrade in water and soil.

Innovative Products

To fuel the continuation of recycling research, there must be a demand from manufacturers for recycled materials:

Cell Phones: In terms of products created from recycled materials, Motorola recently unveiled a cell phone made from recycled materials. Claiming to be the world’s first-carbon neutral phone, the new product is composed of recycled water bottles. Along with using recycled materials to make the phone, Motorola promised to offset its carbon emissions from the phone’s production by investing in reforestation and renewable resources.

Image courtesy of ecovativedesign.com

Image courtesy of ecovativedesign.com

Insulation: Ecovative Design is also working on a new product created from recycled materials. Watch out pink fiberglass insulation, Greensulate is on the way! Made from rice hulls, mushroom fibers and recycled paper, Greensulate is a building material that can repel water, prevent fire and is resistant to temperature change in accordance with the American Society for Testing and Materials International standards. Over the next year or so, Ecovative will be testing the product to see if it is mold resistant even when exposed to water.

The product, despite being sustainable, also has many economic positives since recycled paper is easily accessible and the mushrooms used are grown by the two inventors. Gavin McIntyre, an inventor of Greensulate, told Scientific American, “The rice hulls are agricultural garbage. They sell them for about five dollars a ton.” He also spoke to them about the promise of the product, stating “our product isn’t tied to gas prices, because there’s no petroleum in it. Our current material projections are equal or below the existing cost of board insulations.” The company is hoping that by 2010, Greensulate will join the array of sustainable building products.

What’s Next?

Earth911 directly contacted Waste Management (WM) and Electronic Recyclers International (ERI) to find out what the companies are currently working on and what they think will come of the future.

Waste Management: Lynn Brown, corporate communications vice president, explained that WM is currently working on increasing their volume of recyclables through further implementation of single stream recycling. Brown says that the company is “introducing new things that can be recycled, such as a recycling program for compact florescent bulbs, batteries, and more construction and demolition debris.” They are also working to increase the number of e-waste collection sites to be within five miles of 90 percent of the U.S. population.

Brown believes that in the future, “technology will continue to become perfected; processes have been tweaked so contamination in the recycling processes is no longer a problem like it had been. Waste Management is beginning to look at technologies that haven’t been [previously] economical or scalable, like plasma gasification.”

The future of recycling also might dictate our natural habitats: so far, WM has transformed 21,000 acres of land set aside for landfills into wildlife habitat, and they are working on technologies that can turn landfill gas into fuel.

Electronic Recyclers International: ERI recently revealed their new e-waste shredder. John Shegerian, president and CEO of ERI, told Earth911 that the company is “the Google of the green revolution.” Due to the developments ERI has made, including the shredder, the company has moved ahead of the competition in the recycling industry. Shegerian explains that the company has been “traveling all over the world and became involved with all sorts of interesting projects that are helping to come up with solutions to electronic waste.”

Shegerian also noted that the future of ERI currently consists of “putting in more technology like [the shredder] around the country and throughout the world.” As far as the advancement of recycling goes, he believes the process of developing new technologies will move rather quickly now – it’s just a matter of scaling processes to the level needed.

It is clear that newer, bigger and better technologies are bound to come from the recycling industry. Whether it be recycling processes or products made from recyclables, there is plenty of room for advancement in the industry. The movement for recycling has only just begun.

Feature image courtesy of renatodantasc