Recycling is a transformation process converting waste materials into useful products. Many of us are involved in recycling firsthand; in my case, every two weeks, the waste disposal company truck shows up in my neighborhood to collect a mix of paper, glass, plastic, steel and aluminum containers for recycling. I should note, however, that this is only the first step in the overall recycling process flow. In the 3R’s “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” environmental practice, recycling is now playing a key role in addressing the supply of critical materials. At stake is the availability of adequate material resources as the global population marches upwards to 9.6 billion by 2050. Other driving forces include reduction in environmental pollution and meeting evolving regulatory standards in the push for a more sustainable future. Imagine getting access to metals without resorting to strip mining, open-pit mining and the associated land destruction and environmental damage! How about recapturing scarce materials from the billions of discarded electronic devices? Designing manufacturing processes to convert pollutants into useful products! Protecting trees, the lungs of the planet, by increasing paper recycling. Converting greenhouse gases into useful products! With sustainability a key part of our focus, Pangaea Ventures monitors innovation, new approaches and emerging companies in materials recycling.
Recycling is big global business, involving large volumes of solid waste and recovered materials. The Bureau of International Recycling estimates more than 600 million tons of materials are recycled every year, supplying about 40% of the global raw materials needs! Adam Minter in his book titled “Junkyard Planet” reckons that the turnover from this is around $500 billion! A wide range of materials is already in the recycling loop. These materials include polymers, metals and alloys, paper, ceramics, glass, composites and chemicals in the oil and gas industry. The recycling supply chain is not that complicated, the basic steps being collection, sorting, pre-processing, recovery, conversion and re-use. The physical sorting process automated by Waste Management is nicely documented in Adam Minter’s book. Process conversion technologies include hydrometallurgical, pyrometallurgical, basic wet chemistry and biological routes. One of Pangaea’s strategic partners, Umicore, has implemented comprehensive recycling capabilities to address batteries, solar cells, indium tin oxide (ITO), and fuel cells. Tesla Motors has smartly partnered with Umicore to recycle EV batteries.
Metal recycling is growing and it’s a good thing. Mining, extraction and transformation processes for metals require substantial energy input whilst generating a significant environmental burden. Metals and their alloys enjoy widespread usage and luckily, are amenable to recycling. But recycling rates vary, with > 50% for some elements, such as, aluminum, iron, cobalt and gold but less than 1% for critical rare earths. The US steel industry boasts of recycling more steel than paper, aluminum, glass and plastic combined, with steel scrap becoming the largest source of raw material! Rare earth elements (recently highlighted in Matt Cohen’s blog, rare-earth-metals-not-so-rare-impacts) have been making headlines. China’s stranglehold on rare earth metal supply has increased the sense of urgency to manage supply. Recycling provides an opportunity to address the problem. Both established and startup companies are taking on the rare earth recycling challenge.
The time for accelerating recycling of electronic waste (E-waste) is now. We are now in the connectivity age with billions of mobile devices, the Internet of things (IoT) and wearable electronics. The scrap heap will surely be growing with the short device life cycles, tying up critical metals and other materials. It has been reported that a smart phone contains about 60 elements! Recently, the US EPA set up an electronics recycling challenge program involving many key industry players, including one of our strategic partners, Samsung. Good to see government partnering with industry to take action on a problem in plain sight.
Global plastic production continues to increase, reaching 288 million tons in 2013. We have all seen discarded plastic bags not only strewn around the place but also posing dangers to wildlife. These plastic products cover more than 20 material families from two major groups, thermoplastics and thermosets. Thermoplastics are the recyclable forms and include polyethylene, polypropylene, polyesters, polystyrene and PVC. Thermosets, such as, epoxies on the other hand are not being recycled due to the complex cross-linked structures. Carbon fibers offer major lightweighting benefits but the cost is still too high. Combined with the inability to efficiently recycle carbon fiber composites, mass-market applications have been limited. But innovations are on the way and recycling would open the door for widespread applications. Pangaea is currently evaluating technologies in this area.
Recycling of greenhouse gases has special appeal. Major technological developments are underway to convert carbon dioxide back into useful products that include polymers, chemicals, intermediates and fuels. A diverse array of process techniques is being explored including biological, electrochemical, thermochemical and photochemical methods. Methane, a potent greenhouse gas, is already being recycled. It can be converted into energy and now biologically transformed into food at Calysta (http://calysta.com).
Recycling is everybody’s business. We need to increase the recycling rate across all materials families while implementing policies to ensure safe practices. Smarter product designs, improved product lifecycle management, manufacturing processes with integrated recycling loops and more Reduce, Reuse are still needed. In the meantime, recycling remains a vital tool in the fight for adequate materials supply and reducing our environmental burden.