In 2020, we generated over 2 billion tons of solid waste, and with our ever-growing population, gentrification, and urbanization, our annual waste is expected to increase by 73% by 2050.
Fortunately, recycling is becoming increasingly popular in households, factories, and even corporate offices; however, if we continue in our same waste patterns, our waste crisis will only worsen.
That said, consumers like you and I have the power to change our recycling efforts as a community; we just have to commit to putting the work into it.
This article will cover the future of recycling, why we recycle, its impact on climate change/global warming, the technological advancements to come, and how you can get involved.
There are several reasons why recycling is important in our everyday lives, such as reducing our carbon footprint, decreasing the amount of trash that enters our landfills, and creating a circular economy.
According to the EPA, as of 2018, the official recycling rate for plastic is 8.7%. The government estimates that 29% of plastic recycling in the US comes from different types of plastic waste, including plastic packaging, plastic bags, plastic bottles, and other plastic materials.
When you take part in understanding your waste management and opt into your city's recycling program, you're helping the earth and the recycling infrastructure, making you a better citizen, something you can take pride in while helping your community and the environment.
A carbon footprint can be defined as the measurable amount of carbon dioxide and other carbon compounds, including greenhouse gases and methane. When these carbon compounds are released during human production or consumption activities, they generate fossil fuels that harm the environment.
Examples of Fossil Fuels:
- Natural Gas
Keep in mind that when fossil fuels are burned, they pollute the air. So, when you participate in recycling, you are reducing your carbon footprint, thus, decreasing our overall carbon footprint.
Have you ever been told that "recycling doesn't matter" or "your recycling doesn't actually get recycled; it still ends up in a landfill." If you have ever been told either of these statements, they are incorrect.
For example, when you participate in recycling in Columbus, 80% of your recycling stays within the state of Ohio. If you live locally and wonder where your recycling ends up, listed below is how your recyclables get put back into our community:
- Aluminum Cans: Anheuser-Busch (Columbus, Ohio)
- Glass Bottles: John Manville (Defiance, OH) or Owens Illinois (Zanesville, OH)
- Paper Products: Rock-Tenn Paper (Columbus, OH)
- Plastic Bottles: Haviland Drainage (Haviland, OH) or Signode Plastic (Florence, KY)
- Steel Cans: I.H. Schelezinger (Columbus, OH)
So, contrary to popular belief, when you recycle (at least in Ohio), your recyclables are getting put back into your local, state, and neighboring communities.
As of today, the United States is technically a "linear economy." A linear economy in the traditional sense is when raw materials are collected and transformed into products that consumers (like you and me) use until we believe they are waste and are discarded.
On the other hand, a circular economy goes hand in hand with decreasing waste in our landfills as it aims to keep products "circulating" our economy and staying within it as long as it has a use.
This includes sharing, leasing, reusing, repairing, remodeling, repairing, and recycling materials already manufactured. Doing so will extend the life cycle and create further product or material value.
According to the EPA, a working circular economy has the potential to protect the environment, improve economics, and elevate social justice.
On top of that, using products and recycled material that has already been manufactured will reduce carbon emissions. In fact, using raw materials that have already been manufactured and distributed can save up to 90% in manufacturing and energy costs.
As technology advances, so do the ways we recycle. Some advancements include smart sorting systems, robotic automation, machine learning, and even artificial intelligence.
Believe it or not, while most of the world was on a hiatus during the COVID-19 Pandemic, the robotic world was not. Amanda Marrs (the Senior Director of Products for US-based AMP Robotics) states, "The pandemic forced many recycling businesses to suspend operations due to concerns for worker safety while simultaneously increasing demand for high-quality recycled goods and overcoming supply chain interruptions and shifts in raw material availability."
As of today, once your recyclables reach the recycling facilities, there are various types of materials, like paper, plastic, metal, glass, etc. On top of that, these materials are made into different shapes.
AMP Robotics (Autonomous Manipulation and Perception) is one of the first entities to experiment with AI machine learning. With their world-class technology and commitment to making a difference, they have become the leading innovators in the evolution of recycling.
At AMP, machine learning teaches the sorting machines what material is acceptable and where to go. In this instance, AMP trains its machines to recognize acceptable recyclables by feeding it thousands of images of the material at different stages of its life cycle.
By doing so, AMP now has the largest data set of recyclable material images for machine learning, which other companies can adopt and teach their sorting machines, transforming the recycling process as a whole.
Overall, incorporating the use of this AI can revolutionize the way we think of recycling. It will change our outlook on waste management and help us manage our natural resources for a more sustainable future.
This AI technology can also enhance the quality of recycled materials and goods, decrease plant downtime, and improve working conditions for plant workers by providing a healthy and safe workplace.
Furthermore, AI can help streamline our recycling efforts by improving the efficiency of the recycling plant, automating the sorting process, and playing a significant role in building a circular economy.
A new technological advancement that's sweeping the nation is recycling. You've never heard of "biorecycling?" Well, don't worry, neither did I until writing this article.
Biorecycling, sometimes called "biological recycling," uses specific microbes, such as bacteria and fungi, to break down plastic into its basic elements for reuse. It works by taking the microbe's proteins called enzymes, which biologically break down the plastic into its most basic chemical component.
Then, the components can be reincorporated into plastics of similar type and quality to make different materials or chemicals with more desirable qualities, such as turning regular plastics into biodegradable plastics.
Another type of plastic recycling is also on the rise, chemical recycling. In its simplest terms, Chemical recycling is a new way to break down plastics into their simplest form and convert them into valuable secondary raw materials.
Before you can understand (unless you have a background in science) the technical terms surrounding chemical recycling, let's first define what a polymer and a monomer are. A polymer is a natural or synthetic substance composed of large molecules.
Whereas a monomer is a molecule of any type of compound, typically organic, that will create a chemical reaction with other molecules to form large polymers.
3 Ways to Recycle Plastic Using Chemical Recycling:
1. Dissolution- is a process that extracts plastic compounds using a combination of heat and specific solvents. It dissolves the plastic to create a solution of polymers and additives from which the plastic waste was originally made.
Then those additives are separated from the polymers, and eventually, new additives are added to the extracted polymers to create a new type of recycled plastic.
2. Depolymerization- sometimes called “chemolysis” or “solvolysis,” takes the recycled plastic and uses a concoction of chemicals, solvents, and heat to break down the plastics' polymers into monomers.
From there, some contaminants are secluded from the monomers to remove them. Finally, those monomers are sent back through the plastic manufacturing process, thus creating a secondary raw material.
3. Conversion- uses heat and chemicals in a reactor to break down the plastic into a liquid, oil, or gas. After that, any potential contaminants are isolated and removed; from there, the pure contaminants are sent back into the chemical production chain as a secondary raw material.
With all the talk surrounding recycling, have you ever thought about what would happen if we didn't? To be completely transparent, a few initial things would happen, creating a snowball effect.
- Trash, trash, trash, and more trash
- More Pollution (land and ocean)
- A considerable loss of microorganisms, plants, animals, and eventually, humans.
- The overwhelming depletion of our natural resources
- Increased effects of climate change
- A loss of social responsibility and connection
In fact, the Washington Post predicts that if we stay (or increase) our current production process and fail to dispose of our plastics properly by the year 2050, the amount of plastic in our ocean will "outweigh fish pound per pound." This is even more concerning because we are closer to the year 2050 than 1996.
At this point, you may wonder what you can do to help create a more sustainable world because, remember, the earth's sustainability starts with us.
In some ways, these ways to get involved may be a no-brainer; however, our waste crisis will never be over if we are still producing products that are the root of it. Nevertheless, below are some common ways you can get involved to ensure a sustainable future.
- Drink tap water and use reusable water bottles
- Cook meals at home to reduce food waste (the restaurant industry is notorious for food waste)
- Bring reusable shopping bags to the grocery store
- Compost organic materials
- Purchase items made of recycled products or certified as sustainable products
- Get rid of your single-use products
- Growing your own fruits and vegetables
- Upcycle (to reuse discarded objects and materials and turn them into something of higher value or better quality)
- Downcycle (to reuse discarded objects and materials and create an object of lesser value)
- Just get started! (Remember, even the smallest change can have a BIG impact)
As a community, we face a serious issue with littering and recycling, especially along our highways. To help, we are launching our "Sponsor a Highway" campaign to take action against pollution in our community.
We are sponsoring 200+ miles of highway litter pickup. Every month, the pickup crews assigned to our sponsored miles will go out, clean each mile (collecting thousands of bags of litter), recycle what they can, and properly dispose of what they can’t.
Be sure to look out for each sign installed around central Ohio and join us in keeping Columbus clean and green!