Recycling Startup Technologies Fight to End Plastic Waste

By Carrissa Pahl Published on Oct. 29, 2020

Plastic production has been booming since it was invented six decades ago but has really taken off in the last 20-30 years. Plastics have had a profound impact on modern society, from revolutionizing the way we perform medicine by producing life-saving devices, to making cars lighter which then saves fuel and pollution costs. Plastic has even helped make space travel possible.

However, plastic innovation has also created the problem of plastic waste - largely becoming one of the greatest problems of the 21st century. In the age of technology, it is only fitting that startups would start making progress to help end the problem. Some recycling startups have made some important headway in the fight to end plastic waste. These startups have created new ideas to take care of sorting, picking, chemical recycling, new and innovative packaging ideas, AI in recycling, and how to help the problem of plastic build-up in the ocean. 

Ocean Plastics For Change

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Every year millions of tons of plastic are dumped into the ocean - 8 million to be exact.  Whether that be from people being irresponsible with their waste or plastic being misused and improperly disposed of, the issue needs to be addressed. Startups such as Oceanworks, Clear Blue Sea, Plastic Bank, Foreverables, and 4ocean are doing just that. Addressing this ongoing problem that, if not fixed, will ruin our world as we know it. 

Oftentimes, water animals confuse plastic for food which puts these animals in harm’s way. Consuming these pieces of litter then clogs the animal’s digestive tract which makes it virtually impossible for them to digest foods that would otherwise be normal for their diet. This makes it very difficult for animals to survive once mistaking trash for food and it also litters our oceans and waterways with unwanted materials. 

It's pretty obvious that the time for change has come. Everyone wants our oceans to last for more than the next 30 years. And if we don’t do something to engage in the fight to end plastic waste today, the problem will only get worse. Not only do consumers need to speak up on what they believe in, but also consumers need to speak up and tell us how to better use plastic and dispose of it in a way that benefits our environment, citizens, and animals. There are many different ways to contribute to the solution. 

AI and ML in Plastic Sorting

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Perhaps one of the most staggering statistics is that “If present trends continue, by 2050, there will be 12 billion metric tons of plastic in landfills. That amount is 35,000 times as heavy as the Empire State Building.” The world needs a solution to these heart-wrenching statistics that will come true if nothing is done to save our planet. 

The United States has been cut off from sending their contaminated plastic waste to China. Much of the actual recyclable materials that go into recycling bins are contaminated by liquid, food, or other materials that people think are recyclable, but in fact are not. This means that when people recycle things they think are recyclable, but are not, it can contaminate other material that might have been used to create new materials. Now those materials have been contaminated and will be lost in landfill. Over the past few years, the amount of plastic recycling that has been returned to the US from other countries is astonishing. Why is that? The quality of our recycling is less than ideal and is often contaminated due to improper recycling methods and lack of knowledge. 

Robotic recycle sorting uses artificial intelligence and robotics to sort plastics so humans don’t have to. With advanced cameras and technology, these companies are counting on robots to sort recycling, as well as reduce any health risks that come along with human labor. According to a report at the University of Illinois School of Public Health, recycling workers are twice as likely to be injured on the job as other workers. 

Converting Plastic Waste to Fuel

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Some researchers have found that less than 5% of manufactured plastic is recycled each year. This plastic riddles our ocean and researchers say that it would take more than 450 years to biodegrade, if it ever did. The facilities that would partake in the plastic-to-fuel transformation have the potential to bring upwards of 39,000 new jobs and almost $9 billion in economic output. This could improve our economy while also providing new ways to reuse plastic and save our environment. This new method could also be cheaper than current recycling methods. Currently, it costs upwards of $4,000 to recycle one tonne of plastic bags - this often leads to burning plastic or disposing of it in landfill to avoid these high expenses. 

There are two main ways of conversion from plastic waste to fuel.

  1. Pyrolysis

  2. Hydrothermal Processing

Some of the advantages of converting plastic waste into fuel are:

  • Low cost

  • The plants that convert waste to fuel are producing fuels from combustible materials. 

  • Fuels that are produced can be tailored to a certain need.

  • Can be burned with a lower carbon footprint than fossil fuels

  • There is potential to expand the materials used.

Innovative Packaging: Plastic vs. The Other Guys

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Packaging is essential. It provides visuals, protections, and barriers that are essential in retail locations and grocery stores. It is integral to marketing and brand image as well as keeping products clean, fresh, and protected. Packaging means a lot to people. The way something looks could motivate a consumer to either buy or pass on a particular product. Not only does plastic pose a threat to the environment due to improper disposal, but it also shows its own dangers to human health. 

Plastic packaging is not all beneficial however. Plastic packaging is extremely wasteful and impacts all of earth’s ecosystems. Plastic is not biodegradable. This means that every single piece of plastic made is still on this earth in a landfill, harming an animal, or sitting on a beach or street waiting to be picked up and out of harm's way. 

There are a number of other materials that can be produced to have the same functions as plastic. Some of these include: glass, aluminum, and paper. Innovative packaging startups are making strides in coming up with creative solutions to plastic packaging. They are not only using packaging as a way to make a difference, but also they are teaching people that plastic is not the only material that can make reliable, long lasting packaging. 

Chemical Recycling Innovation

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When not recycled or reused properly, plastic is disruptive to not only the environment, but also to human and animal health. Thanks to media and social campaigns, corporations are starting to realize that there might be other ways to recycle and resume in a more eco-friendly way. Could chemical recycling save our future?

The definition of chemical recycling includes any process by which a polymer is chemically reduced to its original monomer form so it can eventually be remade into like-new plastic and reused. Chemical recycling physically changes the makeup of the plastic and allows for it to be remade into different materials and products. During the process of chemical recycling or advanced recycling, polymers are heated using thermochemical processes, hydrolysis, and solvolysis to recover the original monomer which can then be reused.

Chemical recycling has the potential to help us overcome the limits of traditional recycling. Plastic helps keep our food from spoiling, helps us transport goods, and is much cheaper and more durable than other forms of packaging material.It will be important to keep using plastic, but learn how to do it in a more efficient, environmentally friendly way. 

Creating a Circular Plastic Economy

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When plastic is recycled, where does it go? The question that most people don’t ask, but is essential in trying to combat this recycling crisis. Since plastic was invented six decades ago, a whopping 8.3 billion metric tons have been produced and most of this has piled up in landfills. Despite many benefits, plastics end-of-life management is the key issue for which innovative solutions are required. 

In a linear plastic economy, materials are produced and consumed and then mechanically recycled. The average person assumes that everything they throw into their blue recycling bin gets recycled and reused into new materials.

Mechanical recycling requires employees to hand-sort through recycling and find pieces that are worth keeping - these have not been contaminated. This makes the process not only dangerous, but also very time consuming. 

When plastics are broken down into their monomer form by machines, they are easier to recycle and reuse. This allows for more products to be made and the plastic material to come full-circle in creating new and improved products. 

Using fossil fuel will help the environment by decreasing our society’s dependence on crude oil imports as well as making an effort to decrease our carbon footprint. This new way of recycling shows many possibilities for the future and trying to eliminate as much plastic waste from our environment as possible.

Together Let’s End Plastic Waste

Our planet is riddled with plastic that can not and never will be recycled, but from here out let’s make a difference in deciding what happens to the plastic humans dispose of. There are a ton of little things to change in everyday life to help the plastic issue. Things like recycling properly, reducing the use of plastics, and doing local cleanups around communities and neighborhoods can help contribute to the fight to end plastic waste. 

There is an abundance of startups and companies who are making an effort to make a difference in this fight. It’s time to make an effort to have a cleaner tomorrow. Everything counts so start saving the planet today and learn more about how to minimize the plastic problem.

Learn more about our partnership with the Alliance to End Plastic waste and our End Plastic waste Innovation Platform

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Identifying the problem and putting an end to plastic waste.

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