Innovations in Plastic Recycling
Several innovations are underway to reduce the pollution caused by plastics. These include developing bio-based polymers from waste and residues at a commercial scale, Waxworms as new resources, and robotic sorting of commercial plastic waste. If you want to know more, read on. Here are some of these breakthroughs:
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|High Density Polyethylene
Innovations in Plastic Recycling: Bio-based polymers
While bio-based alternatives are not yet economically competitive, they can still compete if targeted at applications where they excel. Producers can gain significant cost benefits by targeting existing applications for which biobased polymers can be more efficient while increasing production yields. The future perspective will depend on feedstock and upscaling parameters, market trends, and regulatory and policy factors.
- The future of bio-based materials depends on the economics of the process, its competitiveness, and the availability of fossil-fuel subsidies.
- Agro-wastes like grape stems and fruit peels are readily available and have high carboxyl content.
- These biopolymers can be formed, dried, and injected.
- The higher carboxyl content increases Young’s modulus but compromises plastic deformation and elongation at break.
Further, bio-based polymers with high carboxyl content are biodegradable and offer improved water permeability. Agro-wastes can be produced from different sources, including starch and biopolymer blends. Companies such as Mater-Bi/Novamont, Minerva-PHATM, and Bio-On have begun adopting these methods and target a production capacity of 97-570 kilotons per year.
Some researchers note that bioethanol production has the potential to compete with human food supplies and cause food insecurity. Emerging reports suggest the need for new synthetic routes for bio-based polymers. The challenge of bio-based materials is finding a way to produce them on a large scale. The lack of experience in large-scale production makes it difficult to estimate the supply and demand balance. Another challenge is building large-scale plants.
There is insufficient experience in designing large-scale plants and producing bio-based products commercially. Fortunately, new microbial strains will replace some traditional methods and help manufacturers produce bio-based products. Bio-based plastics have been growing in popularity for over a decade, but their production capacity is still far from comparable to the amount of fossil-based plastics.
The current technologies for producing bio-based plastics are limited and inadequate and cannot provide the highest mechanical properties and sustainability. The production costs are higher than fossil-based plastics, and bioplastics are not yet commercially viable.
Innovations in Plastic Recycling: Waxworms
Beekeepers can recycle plastic and use wax worms. The worms’ unique gut microbiome enables them to survive on plastic.
The researchers tested wax worms by placing them in a plastic bag containing 100 of them. The worms survived the experiment, and the plastic bag ended up with several holes. The wax worms, known as Galleria mellonella larvae, ate the plastic bag and grew microbially richer. The scientists found that the worms could break down polyethene into ethylene glycol. The chemical is commonly found in antifreeze and polyester fibres.
- Waxworms can also digest polyvinyl chloride, another commonly disposed material.
- Waxworms may be able to break down the plastic used in shampoo bottles and other consumer products.
- While wax worms are not the only planktivores on earth, they are particularly adept at what they do.
- While they can’t eat enough plastic to solve the plastic pollution crisis, they could help us cut pollution by biodegrading polyethene.
This new method could help us cut pollution in plastic recycling. There are hundreds of millions of tons of plastic waste worldwide, which is expected to grow in the coming years. The researchers studied the worms’ ability to biodegrade polyethene used to make shopping bags. To test this, they placed them in shopping bags containing polyethene. The worms decomposed 92 milligrams of plastic overnight.
Compared to the average 5.5-gram plastic bag, breaking down one hundred wax worms would take a month. In the early 2000s, a study from Brandon University in Manitoba, Canada, revealed that mealworms fed on Styrofoam were as healthy as ordinary mealworms. The worms’ excreted biodegradable fragments can be used as soil for crops. Previously, it was thought that mealworms couldn’t biodegrade plastic.
But the study proved that these creatures could be a viable resource for plastic recycling. Enzyme technology to ‘unlock’ plastics A new technology has been developed to depolymerise certain types of plastics using natural enzymes. This technology uses the ester bond in the plastic to allow enzymes to access the material’s functional end-of-life. The end-of-life for the plastic is then highly biodegradable and chemically recyclable.
However, the enzymes must be stabilised to work. To make the process commercially viable, innovators must first develop an enzymatic depolymerisation system capable of processing common plastics.
Innovations in Plastic Recycling: Patenting the Technology
It is recommended that innovators read a recent EPO report on patents for tomorrow’s plastics. Here, they will learn about the steps that must be taken to protect their invention. High-throughput screening techniques can accelerate the discovery of new enzymes and microbes to depolymerise plastics. For example, the most common host cell is Escherichia coli.
However, alternative expression systems, such as yeast Pichia pastoris, can be used to guarantee stable and functional enzyme expression. Further, C-labeled plastic materials are highly versatile and can be used to create targeted metagenomic libraries to discover novel enzymes for biodegradation. Another biotech company has made a breakthrough in plastic recycling by creating reusable, coloured PET bottles.
The enzyme, known as PETase, attacks the plastic bottle’s hard crystalline surface. The new super-enzyme is six times faster than the first enzyme, allowing it to break the plastic in half the time it would take for a human to digest it. This breakthrough in the plastic recycling process may change how the industry manages its waste.
Innovations in Plastic Recycling
The process of robotic sorting of plastic waste could soon become a reality. These machines can identify the material based on its physical properties and work up to twice as fast as human workers. The robotic arms are guided by cameras and computer systems trained to recognise objects. The robots snag the recyclables and place them in bins. The robots can do this task as quickly as human workers and can help recyclers reduce their carbon footprint.
The robots can be fitted on existing sort lines with minimal retrofitting costs and downtime. With a button, these machines can identify the materials a bin holds. The technology can sort PET, HDPE, LDPE, PS, PP, Tetra Pak, paper, and cardboard of various shapes. And because the robotic system can handle so many different materials, the recycling industry should see a significant boost in its bottom line.
While North America is the largest market, it is also the fastest-growing, driven by an increasing need for recycling. China is responsible for a substantial percentage of the world’s garbage and recently introduced stricter pollution rules, including burying all garbage with more than 0.5 per cent contamination. Other countries in APAC are far ahead of China in implementing robotic sortings, such as Australia-NZ and Japan.
Nonetheless, countries like India and South-East Asia are still in the planning stages. In waste-sorting technology, object recognition is essential. Using deep learning, robotic systems store images of a range of objects. The more images they have, the more accurate they can identify the materials. Most waste sorting systems use a combination of sensors, including NearInfrared (NIR) sensors, which detect different resins.
But the sensors can’t see black plastic. Therefore, these machines use different methods for distinguishing the two types of plastic. Researchers at the University of Sydney have developed a robotic system that can distinguish between soft plastics and other waste to achieve this goal. This system combines robots, 3D cameras, and IoT communications. Initially, robots can separate soft plastics from hard plastics. This will help recyclers operate more efficiently and profitably. They can also improve the efficiency of existing recycling facilities.
Innovations in Plastic Recycling – Learn more about UK business waste statistics here
Other useful links from our Commercial Waste Centre
Is a Waste Service For Small Businesses Right For Your Business?
A Guide to Commercial Food Waste Disposal in the UK
What Products Are Made From Recycled Waste Material?
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