In a modern world, does it really make sense to truck our recyclables around the country, or the world?
In recent months, it has become apparent that Australia has a major recycling problem. Many years ago, most of our local municipal councils implemented recycling programs, undertaking an initiative to move in a forward direction. We saw the replacement of what was a standard wheelie bin in the 90s, with a collection of bins, to encourage the separation of recyclable and green waste, rather than throwing everything in the bin destined for landfill. Of course, we hope all those old wheelie bins found a useful purpose as something else, and didn’t end up in landfill themselves!
On the one hand, this is a sensational initiative, which I don’t think we can really criticise. What many of us never realised is that we were shipping a large portion of those recyclable items offshore, often to China or other Asian countries for processing. This worked fine, until China stopped buying recyclable waste on January 1st, 2018.
For some reason, I’ve always had a fascination with recycling. Even as a child, where recycling basically only meant cutting the top of a large Coca Cola bottle to use as a wind-protector for candles, I often wondered about how these things could be put to better use. Some recycling efforts were around in the 80s, and I have memories of dragging crates of aluminium cans to a large facility, where you’d collect a few dollars in return for what seemed like an eternity of collection. But those were the early days in recycling, and from memory, metals and such weren’t separated from landfill then either; they were simply buried along with the food scraps and broken toys.
It’s worth noting that Australians should be applauded, because these days our households recycle 87% of all possible recyclable waste. Just imagine where we’d be at if those recycling initiatives hadn’t taken place!
THE ENERGY EQUATION
While some items cannot be recycled indefinitely (such as paper), several items can, which make up a large portion of recyclable materials. This includes PET (polyethylene terephthalate), which is often used in water bottles, as well as glass bottles, and aluminium and steel cans. Of course, these materials are also recycled from building industries and such, but we’ll focus on what we’re putting in our household recycling bins for now.
Glass, aluminium and steel are all infinitely recyclable. Whether it’s recycled for the first time, or the 100th time, the net result is the same. The energy required to reuse these materials is also SIGNIFICANTLY less than starting from scratch. This means that even with some trucking around (across the country or globe), the energy to reclaim, transport, and reuse the materials is still generally much lower than it is to create new materials. Plus we reduce the impact on ever increasing landfills. Awesome!
DID THE MILKMAN HAVE IT RIGHT?
Many of us have memories of the milkman delivering fresh milk to the door. It came in glass bottles with a small foil seal for a lid. Crates were reused, the milk bottles were collected, washed, and refilled, and we left the empties out for collection on the next run.
These days we consider reusable coffee cups as a positive step towards environmental protection, but did we already have it right back then? Sure, there was some breakage and such, but the energy required to reuse an existing bottle in a safe way, had to be less energy intensive than standard recycling methods (and by definition, less than using raw materials). Perhaps glass bottles will make a return at some point, for this very reason?
While centralised recycling for the bulk of items is a great idea, what if we can use things a little more locally? It serves to get recyclable raw materials into the hands of manufacturers because if they have no recyclables to make use of, then they’ll have to turn to raw materials, after all.
There are some low hanging fruit with this idea however; and that is PET. PET is not infinitely reusable, but can quite easily be recycled. One thing that makes recycling difficult (that is, contaminants), are fairly easily overcome with PET because it’s most commonly used for bottled water. The only real contaminant to deal with is the label / glue, which could be taken care of with relative ease. We could basically feed the bottles into a mincer, which goes into a hopper, to then create extruded filament on demand, as needed by the printer.
Sure, there’s probably a little more complexity to it, but it’s these wild ideas that are often the start of something amazing.
There are, of course, already solutions for reclaiming filaments such as PLA. However these materials aren’t as common, so you’re really limited to recycling old prototypes. That’s a great option for someone doing constant prototyping, however unlikely to yield a cost advantage for the average maker.
IT’S WITHIN REACH
It’s important to note that PET isn’t the easiest filament to work with for 3D printing. However, if the filament was effectively FREE, wouldn’t we work harder to iron out any challenges? If the economic conditions create an opportunity, someone will get there. Perhaps someone who is adept at creating mechanical systems and can therefore easily develop a small scale bottle recycler to feed our 3D printing needs!