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The Future of Recycling Plastics – What New Technologies Are Around the Corner?

The Future of Recycling Plastics – What New Technologies Are Around the Corner?

Even with the recycling rate for Waste from Households (WfH) in the UK increasing from 45.2% in 2016 to 45.7% in 2017, and with the EU target at 50% by 2020, we are still nowhere close to a fully-sustainable model. This is in part because the plastic being produced every year dwarfs the amount being recycled. If we are to reverse the effects of climate change and ensure a brighter future for our planet, we need to find ways of making recycling more sustainable and convenient.

In what follows, we will take a look at what the future of recycling holds, looking at how the most promising up-and-coming technologies could completely change the way we treat our waste.


Best New Recycling Techniques

Plastic: Moving from Recycling to Reprocessing

o   Plastics to Fuel

o   Plastic Bag Recycling and Repurposing

o   All Roads Lead to Plastic

o   3-D Printing from Recycled Plastics


Harnessing the Power of Nature

o   Bioplastics

o   Plastic-eating Mushrooms



Plastic: Moving from Recycling to Reprocessing

Unlike glass or metal, plastic can’t be recycled infinitely. After being repurposed a few times through the recycling process, and losing quality and purity each time, plastics finally reach the end of the road.

After reaching their full recycling potential, plastics either end up in landfills or make their way into various parts of the natural environment, taking hundreds of years to decompose. Thus, the recycling process is not as sustainable as most of us may have thought. Making the leap from recycling to reprocessing is needed if we are to make plastics truly sustainable.


o   Plastics to Fuel

According to research, with the amount of petroleum needed to make 14 plastic bags, a car would be able to drive one mile. It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that technologies are emerging which can transform plastic bags into fuel.

A team of researchers from the Shanghai Institute of Organic Chemistry and University of California, Irvine have developed an efficient method of turning Polyethylene (PE) into liquid fuel.

PE is one of the most difficult plastics to degrade without any special treatment. What’s more, it is the largest volume plastic in the world, with annual production figures exceeding 100 million metric tons. Thus, the discovery made in 2016 could be momentous if the technology is refined and made widely available.

Of course, this can only be a temporary fix while we sort out the journey beyond both unsustainable, single-use plastics and diesel fuel. However, in the meantime, as plastic debris are killing wildlife and littering beaches, we can instead use them to power our diesel cars. 


o   Plastic Bag Recycling and Repurposing

There are a few emerging technologies which promise to solve the plastic bag conundrum without having to do away with the practicality of these carriers. We can keep on using plastic bags as long as we find ways of making them sustainable.

One of these methods is the brainchild of New Yorker Henry Miller. The architecture graduate developed a way of forming bricks out of granulated plastic bags and concrete. The result is a sturdy brick which uses plastic that would otherwise go to landfills – a significant win for the environment.

As early as 2013, scientists had figured out how to transform plastic bags into high tech nanomaterials. These nanomaterials (called carbon nanotubes, or CNTs) have a plethora of possible applications and are already used in electronics, wind turbines, and sports equipment, among other products. Perhaps the most exciting application of CNTs, which are six times lighter than steel but orders of magnitude stronger, is in the building of long-lasting batteries.


o   All Roads Lead to Plastic

Converting plastic into a material used in road building is not a new idea. India’s KK Plastic Waste Management has been working towards building a method of mixing plastic from landfills with asphalt since the early 1990’s. The resulting mixture has been used to build roads all over the country and holds the promise of giving microplastic waste a future other than being swept from landfills into our oceans.

The roads made using this new mixture have been found to last longer and wear better than traditional ones. Reprocessing microplastics and other larger plastic waste holds the key to sustainable living; the other upside is we can get better roads in the process too.


o   3-D Printing from Recycled Plastics

3-D printing could be a recycling alternative. A number of companies have come out with technologies which allow users to make filament from recycling plastics which can then be used to print out various objects.

One such company is Precious Plastic, which has made the blueprints of its plastic recycling machines open source in an attempt to encourage as many people as possible to take up this method of repurposing plastic waste. The machines used are built using basic, widely available materials and are easy to put together and repair due to the abundance of tutorials made available on the web.

It must be noted that there are drawbacks which come with this method. As we’ve already seen, plastic degrades every time it goes through the process, becoming frailer and darker in colour. 3D printer users can however use it to print out prototypes, thus reducing their footprint. 

Even in spite of this, this is a truly remarkable project which demonstrates that, when it comes to ecological issues and sustainable technologies, a profit-driven model is not always best suited.



Harnessing the Power of Nature


o  Plant Based Plastics (or Bioplastics)

Bioplastics could be the most sustainable solution long term. The term refers to plastic which, instead of being made from petroleum, is manufactured from plant or other biological material. Technological breakthroughs have meant that this material is now just as strong, durable, and flexible as plastic.

An Israeli company called Tipa makes compostable plastic packaging which is made out of plant-based polymers. It is just as durable as traditional plastic packaging but doesn’t pollute the environment; something to keep an eye out for in the coming years.

o  Plastic-eating mushrooms

A particularly innovative solution could come from harnessing the power of nature’s greatest decomposers: mushrooms.

Until the discovery of Pestalotiopsis microspora, it was thought that polyurethane (a type of plastic found in many widely used objects such as mattresses, shoe soles, or sportswear) was non-biodegradable. However, in 2012, a group of students from Yale University stumbled upon Pestalotiopsis during a trip to the Amazon rainforest; a moment which may change the future of recycling plastics completely. They discovered that the fungi could not only eat and digest the plastic but could do so even in the absence of oxygen. This means that the mycelium could potentially be placed at the bottom of landfills and be left to feed on all the plastic waste above it.

It takes just a few months for the mycelium to break down the plastic completely, leaving a white fruiting body (a mushroom) in its wake. The discovery could have far-reaching implications for the way in which plastic recycling can occur in the future. Even if people prove to be averse to eating something which has fed on plastic waste, the mushrooms could be composted and turned into soil much faster than any plastic would decompose.

Perhaps more significant is the potential of the mushroom to also solve world hunger. In places which suffer from poor agricultural and food distribution infrastructures, mushroom recycling kits could literally turn trash into food. Since the 2012 finding, it has been discovered that many other mushrooms are able to feed on plastic. Scientists are now hopeful that home recycling kits can be mass-produced and made available to places which usually suffer from famine.



Structural Change: Alternatives to Capitalism

We’ve already touched upon the idea that structural change might be needed if we are to make sustainable technologies popular and widespread. Capitalism has arguably led to the greatest innovations in human history, but the logic of the market shouldn’t permeate all human affairs. This is especially true of issues which concern the future of organised human life as a whole, such as ecological sustainability. In these matters, perhaps profit-driven ventures are not the best entities to rely on.

What is needed is a non-profit model aimed at bringing as many brilliant minds together in order to figure out the best solution to our current ecological woes. A framework which makes these findings opensource and allows everyone on Earth to benefit from them without it being caged behind the bars of copyright or patent laws is also preferable.

If you want to make a difference while these technologies are proliferated, check out our guides on how to dispose of electronics and how to recycle electronic components. Electronics, like plastics, are a widespread source of pollution which greatly affect the natural habitats here on Earth.