The circular economy of waste. New scientific approaches to recycling waste of any kind

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Every year, 90 billion tonnes of primary materials on average are extracted and used globally, with less than 10% being recycled. This is commercially unsustainable and it can cause significant detrimental impacts on the environment. The circular economy of waste supports the development of new industries and jobs, reduces emissions, and can increase the efficient use of natural resources including energy, water, and other materials. Beyond waste management, the circular economy boosts entire economies. Responsible manufacturing systems can reuse and recycle used materials, maximize resource utilization and incorporate the concept of circularity during production and consumption. With recent discoveries and new scientific approaches regarding the circular economy of waste, a more sustainable world can be achieved while solving global waste problems.

Household Waste Sorting at the source. Material recycling can be challenging due to the lack of an analysis tool that can help improve the source separation system at the local level. Developed in Sweeden back in 2018, this analysis tool tests and evaluates any source separation system for household waste to study the recycling behaviour, in order to improve sorting at the source in any waste collection system, which gave birth to the Recycling Behavior Transition procedure (RBT). The latter proved to be effective for improving recycling behaviour while helping in identifying the appropriate interventions based on the local context.

AuREUS System Technology, developed in the Philippines and the winner of the inaugural Sustainability Award of the James Dyson Award 2020, makes use of crop waste that absorbs stray UV light from the sun and converts it to renewable energy. It’s a new material made from rotten fruit and vegetables, which converts UV light into electricity and can be used for window panels and walls. AuREUS devices use the same technology derived from the phenomena that create the Northern lights, high-energy particles are absorbed by luminescent particles that re-remit them as visible light.

Flash Graphene from Plastic Waste. It is an approach studied in 2020 in the United States, to upcycle plastic waste products, by relying on flash Joule heating to convert plastic waste into flash graphene. In addition to the latter, the process results in the formation of carbon oligomers, hydrogen, and light hydrocarbons. In order to make high-quality graphene, a sequential alternating current and direct current flash are used. The flash Joule heating process requires no catalyst and works for plastic waste mixtures, which makes the process suitable for handling it. As graphene naturally occurs and shows a low toxicity profile, this approach could be an environmentally beneficial method. Flash Joule heating is a solvent-free and sustainable process that recovers precious metals and removes hazardous heavy metals in the electronic waste within one second, the sample temperature can reach 3400 K in milliseconds by the ultrafast electrical thermal process. The high temperature enables the evaporative separation of precious metals from the supporting matrices. The heavy metals in electronic waste, some of which are highly toxic are also removed, to achieve levels acceptable even for agricultural soil levels

Brightmark, which is a global waste solutions company in the United States, operates in advanced plastics renewal and chemical technology. After collecting plastic waste, it is then prepped for conversion by shredding, removing metals, drying, and pelletizing. The pelletized plastic material is heated afterwards, before being vaporized in an oxygen-starved environment. The vapour is captured, cooled into a hydrocarbon liquid, and processed into commercial-grade ultra-low sulfur diesel, naphtha, and wax.

Librec. The Swiss company’s approach is developing a technology for recycling large lithium-ion batteries used in electromobility, which makes it possible to use up to 95% of the components to manufacture new batteries. Librec checks the delivered batteries for their functionality; reusable cells are then packed into a new casing and prepared for further use. Batteries are dismantled once they reach the end of their life; the materials are separated to go through a shredding process, which produces the black mass from which new batteries can be made. A similar process is also used by KYBURZ, a Swiss producer of electric vehicles that recycles lithium batteries.

MEILO, a German company, sorts plastic trash from the yellow barrels in 30 repetitive sorting processes until the maximal purity of variety is attained. Plastics are first separated according to size and then subjected to an air separator. Then, a near-infrared scanner scans the plastics on the conveyor belt as they pass, communicating to a compressed air jet at the end of the conveyor belt which plastics are recyclable before the compressed air jet blows these materials aside.

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