Recycling: it’s complicated

Tuesday 27 November 2018

Recycling plant

A good example of a successful recycling industry is steel recycling.

In summary

  • Analysis for Inside Waste by Professor Geoffrey Brooks, Director of the Joint Research Centre for Advanced Manufacturing in Shandong, China at Swinburne University of Technology.

Most people are in favour of recycling.

Recycling as a concept is appealing to almost everybody. You do not need training in life cycle analysis or sustainability engineering to grasp the basic idea and inherent appeal of recycling materials, rather than simply dumping or burying our consumer goods that we know longer want.

But to quote Meryl Streep, “it’s complicated”.

Recycling does not just depend on goodwill and nice intentions. Successful recycling systems require investment in collection infrastructure, regulatory frameworks to support the activity, investment in processing technology, and often a lot of business and technical innovation to succeed.

Steel recycling

A good example of a successful recycling industry is steel recycling. Steel is the most recycled material in the world, with an overall recycling rate of 86 per cent, according to the Steel Recycling Institute. This has not happened by accident, as most first-world countries have good systems for collecting and processing steel scrap. We also have laws in place to prevent people from simply dumping large steel items (e.g. you are not allowed to just dump an old car where you want) and governments have been supportive of setting up scrap processing facilities.

The steel industry has also embraced steel recycling and there has been strong investment in steel recycling technology and R&D. For a long time, steel recycling was associated with low-grade steel products, but in the last 30 years, there has been a shift towards making higher grade steel (e.g. automotive sheet) from scrap steel. This push has also put pressure on scrap merchants to be cleverer in sorting steel and for steelmakers to develop new techniques for controlling quality.

And this happy story keeps on giving, because the steel recycling industry has also become much better at limiting the environmental impact of its processes. In our country, the steel recyclers have been active in finding ways of using the residues from the process in building materials. In the last 10 years, OneSteel (now Liberty) developed a process for including recycled rubber materials in the steelmaking process, which they have commercialised internationally.

Of course, there are still challenges, such as the issues around recovering valuables from the dusts generated (they often contain significant zinc) and there are impurities in the steel that are very difficult to remove (amusingly called ‘tramp elements’), an issue that my research team at Swinburne is currently working on.

There has been business innovation in this industry as well. In the US during the 80s and 90s, Nucor successfully challenged the traditional management model associated with big steel companies by emphasising teamwork, community involvement and reducing the layers of management in their steel recycling plants. Many of these approaches have been adopted across the industry, so in a sense, innovation in the management of scrap processing lead the way for the industry as a whole.

Underlying this success story is a basic value proposition – recycling steel makes economic and environmental sense. When you recycle steel, you use approximately half the energy required compared to starting from the ore. Because you can make good quality steel from scrap, investment can be attracted to the technology. Governments encourage the industry because it provides worthwhile employment for its citizens.

What can we learn from the success of steel recycling?

Firstly, there needs to be a basic value proposition that drives the investment.

Secondly, you want the recycling technology to produce high-value products (or at least has the prospect of doing so), as this also will encourage investment and R&D.

Finally, you need to get government support, so that the laws and infrastructure investment supports the development of the industry.

It’s the issues that we need to address in our push to develop better recycling processes for plastics and e-waste.

E-waste

In the case of e-waste, it is clear that there is a value proposition in place with the prospect of high-value products being extracted from the waste, namely, the gold, silver, copper and rare earth elements present. Precious metals make up almost 80 per cent of the value of circuit boards and are many times richer than ores that we mine for these materials. However, the intermingling of the valuable components with the less valuable plastic and ceramic parts of the waste stream, means any e-waste processor needs to find a way to find value for the plastic and ceramic portions without excessive investment in processing equipment and infrastructure.

Recently, a techno-economic analysis of e-waste processing technologies carried out at Swinburne found that profitable enterprises could be set up in Australia above the scale of 30,000 tonnes per annum. These calculations suggest that Australia could have two or three profitable e-waste processing plants set up in our three biggest population centres.

In this case, I think what is lacking is the right regulatory environment and government support to get the industry established. There are successful e-waste recycling industries in other countries (Belgium is notable) and it is clear that in these countries, there is strong government support for the industry.

Plastics and composites

In the cases of plastic and composite recycling, there are many complex and varied issues associated with each type of material, i.e. the prospects for polyvinyl chloride (PVC) recycling are very different from low-density polyethylene (LDPE). But in general, there are problems with the value proposition because of the relatively low-value of products generally made from plastic recycling. This suggests that even with strong government support to process these materials, we will struggle to find investment and long-term solutions.

Simply put, waste plastics are not generally attractive enough as a source of wealth to encourage investors to build new processing facilities.

I think this is why some countries simply use these materials as fuel for energy generation, as combustion is a relatively low-cost method of getting some value from polymer-based materials. Of course, breaking down complex polymeric materials to carbon monoxide and water molecules is a crude way to extract value and this is where there is space for new and innovative ideas.

Experience shows that goodwill alone will not improve these recycling dilemmas, as long-term solutions require investment and innovation.

In short, it’s complicated.