Electronic waste is recycled in appalling conditions in India



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The vast majority of e-waste in India is processed by hand.
Miles Parl, Author provided

Miles Park, UNSW

Electronic waste is recycled in appalling conditions in India

The world produces 50 million tonnes of electronic and electrical waste (e-waste) per year, according to a recent UN report, but only 20% is formally recycled. Much of the rest ends up in landfill, or is recycled informally in developing nations.




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India generates more than two million tonnes of e-waste annually, and also imports undisclosed amounts of e-waste from other countries from around the world – including Australia.

We visited India to examine these conditions ourselves, and reveal some of the devastating effects e-waste recycling has on workers’ health and the environment.

Obsolete computer electronics equipment lie stacked along the roads in Seelampur.
Alankrita Soni, Author provided

Indian e-waste

More than 95% of India’s e-waste is processed by a widely distributed network of informal workers of waste pickers. They are often referred to as “kabadiwalas” or “raddiwalas” who collect, dismantle and recycle it and operate illegally outside of any regulated or formal organisational system. Little has changed since India introduced e-waste management legislation in 2016.

We visited e-waste dismantlers on Delhi’s outskirts. Along the narrow and congested alleyways in Seelampur we encountered hundreds of people, including children, handling different types of electronic waste including discarded televisions, air-conditioners, computers, phones and batteries.

Open fires create toxic smoke, and locals reported high rates of respiratory problems.
Alankrita Soni, Author provided

Squatting outside shop units they were busy dismantling these products and sorting circuit boards, capacitors, metals and other components (without proper tools, gloves, face masks or suitable footwear) to be sold on to other traders for further recycling.

Local people said the waste comes here from all over India. “You should have come here early morning, when the trucks arrive with all the waste,” a trolley driver told us.

Seelampur is the largest e-waste dismantling market in India. Each day e-waste is dumped by the truckload for thousands of workers using crude methods to extract reusable components and precious metals such as copper, tin, silver, gold, titanium and palladium. The process involves acid burning and open incineration, creating toxic gases with severe health and environmental consequences.




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Workers come to Seelampur desperate for work. We learned that workers can earn between 200 and 800 rupees (A$4-16) per day. Women and children are paid the least; men who are involved with the extraction of metals and acid-leeching are paid more.

Income is linked to how much workers dismantle and the quality of what is extracted. They work 8-10 hours per day, without any apparent regard for their own well-being. We were told by a local government representative that respiratory problems are reportedly common among those working in these filthy smoke-filled conditions.

Residential areas adjoining Seelampur Drain.
Alankrita Soni

Delhi has significant air and water pollution problems that authorities struggle to mitigate. We were surprised to learn that the recycling community does not like to discuss “pollution”, so as not to raise concerns that could result in a police raid. When we asked about the burning of e-waste, they denied it takes place. Locals were reluctant to talk to us in any detail. They live in fear that their trade will be shut down during one of the regular police patrols in an attempt to curb Delhi’s critical air and water problems.




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As a result of this fear, e-waste burning and acid washing are often hidden from view in the outskirts of Delhi and the neighbouring states of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, or done at night when there is less risk of a police raid.

Incidentally, while moving around Seelampur we were shocked to see children playing in drains clogged with dumped waste. During the drier months drains can catch fire, often deliberately lit to reduce waste accumulation.

Young boys searching for valuable metal components they can sell in Seelampur.
Author provided

After our tour of Seelampur we visited Mandoli, a region near Delhi where we were told e-waste burning takes place. When we arrived and asked about e-waste recycling we were initially met with denials that such places exist. But after some persistence we were directed along narrow, rutted laneways to an industrial area flanked by fortified buildings with large locked metal doors and peephole slots not dissimilar to a prison.

We arranged entry to one of these units. Among the swirling clouds of thick, acrid smoke, four or so women were burning electrical cables over a coal fire to extract copper and other metals. They were reluctant to talk and very cautious with their replies, but they did tell us they were somewhat aware of the health and environmental implications of the work.

We could not stay more than a few minutes in these filthy conditions. As we left we asked an elderly gentleman if people here suffer from asthma or similar conditions. He claimed that deaths due to respiratory problems are common. We also learned that most of these units are illegal and operate at night to avoid detection. Pollution levels are often worse at night and affect the surrounding residential areas and even the prisoners at the nearby Mandoli Jail.

Women extracting copper from electrical wires, in a highly polluting process.
Alankrita Soni, Author provided

We had the luxury of being able to leave after our visit. It is devastating to think of the residents, workers and their children who spend their lives living among this toxic waste and breathing poisonous air.

Field trips such as this help illustrate a tragic paradox of e-waste recycling in developed versus developing nations. In Australia and many other advanced industrialised economies, e-waste collection is low and little is recycled. In India, e-waste collection and recycling rates are remarkably high.

This is all due to informal recyclers, the kabadiwalas or raddiwalas. They are resourceful enough to extract value at every stage of the recycling process, but this comes with a heavy toll to their health and the environment.


This article was co-written by Ms. Alankrita Soni, UNSW Alumni & practising Environmental Architect from India.The Conversation

Miles Park, Senior Lecturer, Industrial Design, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

When water is scarce, we can’t afford to neglect the alternatives to desalination


Ian Wright, Western Sydney University and Jason Reynolds, Western Sydney University

This is the second of two articles looking at the increasing reliance of Australian cities on desalination plants to supply drinking water, with less emphasis on the alternatives of water recycling and demand management. So what is the best way forward to achieve urban water security?


An important lesson from the Millennium Drought in Australia was the power of individuals to curb their own water use. This was achieved through public education campaigns and water restrictions. It was a popular topic in the media and in daily conversations before the focus turned to desalination for water security.

Water authorities were also expanding the use of treated wastewater – often a polite term for sewage – for “non-potable” uses. These included flushing toilets, watering gardens, and washing cars and laundry.

Today, the emphasis on recycling wastewater in some locations is declining. The arguments for increased water recycling appear to be falling away now that desalinated water is available.




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Cities turn to desalination for water security, but at what cost?


This trend ignores the fact that the potential supply of recycled water increases as populations grow.

Today most Australian wastewater is treated then disposed into local streams, rivers, estuaries and the ocean. In Sydney, for example, the city’s big three outfalls dump nearly 1 billion litres (1,000 megalitres, ML) a day into the ocean.

Where has recycling succeeded?

Australia has several highly successful water recycling projects.

Sydney introduced the Rouse Hill recycled water scheme in 2001. Highly treated wastewater is piped into 32,000 suburban properties in distinct purple pipes. Each property also has the normal “potable” drinking water supply.

Rouse Hill is considered a world-leading urban recycling scheme. South Australia (Mawsons Lakes) and Victoria (Yarra Valley Water, South East Water) have similar projects.

Our farmers often struggle to secure water for irrigation. Chronic water shortages across the Murray-Darling river system vividly demonstrate this.




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Recycled water can play an important role in agricultural schemes. There are successful examples in South Australia (Virginia Irrigation Scheme), Victoria (Werribee) and New South Wales (Picton).




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Perth has gone further by embracing water recycling for urban use with plans to treat it to a drinking water standard. Part of the extensive treatment process involves reverse osmosis, which is also used in desalination. The treated water is then pumped into groundwater aquifersand stored.

This “groundwater replenishment” adds to the groundwater that contributes about half of the city’s water supply. The Water Corporation of Perth has a long-term aim to recycle 30% of its wastewater.

Southeast Queensland, too, has developed an extensive recycled water system. The Western Corridor Recycled Water Scheme also uses reverse osmosis and can supplement drinking water supplies during droughts.




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Demand management works too

Past campaigns to get people to reduce water use achieved significant results.

In Sydney, water use fell steeply under water restrictions (2003-2009). Since the restrictions have ended, consumption has increased under the softer “water wise rules”. Regional centres including (Tamworth) outside of Sydney are under significant water restrictions currently with limited relief in sight.

Despite a 25% increase in Sydney’s population, total demand for drinking water remains lower than before mandatory restrictions were introduced in late 2003.
© Sydney Water, used with permission

The Victorian government appears to be the Australian leader in encouraging urban water conservation. Across Melbourne water use per person averaged 161 litres a day over 2016-18. Victoria’s “Target 155” program, first launched in late 2008 and revived in 2016, aims for average use of 155 litres a day.

In a comparison of mainland capitals Melbourne used the least water per residential property, 25% less than the average. Southeast Queensland residents had the second-lowest use, followed by Adelaide. Sydney, Perth and Darwin had the highest use.

Although Melbourne water prices are among the highest of the major cities, lower annual water use meant the city’s households had the lowest water bills in 2016-17, analysis by the Australian Bureau of Meteorology found.


Calculated from Bureau of Meteorology data, Author provided

What impact do water prices have?

Clearly, water pricing can be an effective tool to get people to reduce demand. This could partly explain why water use is lower in some cities.

Water bills have several components. Domestic customers pay a service fee to be connected. They then pay for the volume of water they use, plus wastewater charges on top of that. Depending on where you live, you might be charged a flat rate, or a rate that increases as you use more water.

The chart below shows the pricing range in our major cities.


https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/xIJQR/3/


Flat charges for water per kilolitre (where a kL equals 1,000 litres) apply in Sydney ($2.08/kL)), Darwin ($1.95/kL) and Hobart ($1.06/kL.

However, most water authorities charge low water users a cheaper rate, and increased prices apply for higher consumption. The most expensive water in Australia is for Canberra residents – $4.88 for each kL customers use over 50kL per quarter. The cheapest water is Hobart ($1.06/kL).

Higher fees for higher residential consumption are charged in Canberra, Perth, Southeast Queensland, across South Australia and in Melbourne. In effect, most major water providers penalise high-water-using customers. This creates an incentive to use less.

For example, Yarra Valley Water customers in Melbourne using less than 440 litres a day pay $2.64/kL. From 441-880L/day they are charged $3.11/kL. For more than 881L/day they pay $4.62/kL – 75% more than the lowest rate.

Is recycled water getting priced out of business?

Recycling water may not be viable for Sydney Water. It can cost over $5 per 1kL to produce, but the state pricing regulator, IPART, sets the cost of recycled water to Sydney customers at just under $2 per kL. That’s probably well below the cost of production.

Recycled water, where available, is a little bit more expensive ($2.12/kL) in South Australia.

Subsidies are probably essential for future large recycling schemes. This was the case for a 2017 plan to expand the Virginia Irrigation Scheme. South Australia sought 30% of the capital funding from the Commonwealth.

Where to from here?

Much of southern Australia is facing increasing water stress and capital city water supplies are falling. Expensive desalination plants are gearing up to supply more water. Will they insulate urban residents from the disruption many others are feeling in drought-affected inland and regional locations? Should we be increasing the capacity of our desalination plants?

We recommend that urban Australia should make further use of recycled water. This will also reduce the environmental impact of disposing wastewater in our rivers, estuaries and ocean. All new developments should have recycled water made available, saving our precious potable water for human consumption.

Water conservation should be given the highest priority. Pricing of water that encourages recycling and water conservation should be a national priority.




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You can read the first article, on cities’ increasing reliance on desalination, here.The Conversation

Ian Wright, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Science, Western Sydney University and Jason Reynolds, Research Lecturer in Geochemistry, Western Sydney University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Here’s what happens to our plastic recycling when it goes offshore



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Migrant workers break apart blocks of pressed plastic bottles at a recycling plant in Thailand.
EPA/DIEGO AZUBEL

Monique Retamal, University of Technology Sydney; Elsa Dominish, University of Technology Sydney; Le Xuan Thinh; Nguyen, Anh Tuan, and Samantha Sharpe, University of Technology Sydney

Last year many Australians were surprised to learn that around half of our plastic waste collected for recycling is exported, and up to 70% was going to China. So much of the world’s plastic was being sent to China that China imposed strict conditions on further imports. The decision sent ripples around the globe, leaving most advanced economies struggling to manage vast quantities of mixed plastics and mixed paper.




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China’s recycling ‘ban’ throws Australia into a very messy waste crisis


By July 2018, which is when the most recent data was available, plastic waste exports from Australia to China and Hong Kong reduced by 90%. Since then Southeast Asia has become the new destination for Australia’s recycled plastics, with 80-87% going to Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam. Other countries have also begun to accept Australia’s plastics, including the Philippines and Myanmar.

Destination of plastic exports from Australia between January 2017 and July 2018. Click image to zoom.
Source: UTS Institute for Sustainable Futures, based on Comtrade data

But it looks like these countries may no longer deal with Australia’s detritus.

In the middle of last year Thailand and Vietnam announced restrictions on imports. Vietnam announced it would stop issuing import licences for plastic imports, as well as paper and metals, and Thailand plans to stop all imports by 2021. Malaysia has revoked some import permits and Indonesia has begun inspecting 100% of scrap import shipments.

Why are these countries restricting plastic imports?

The reason these countries are restricting plastic imports is because of serious environmental and labour issues with the way the majority of plastics are recycled. For example, in Vietnam more than half of the plastic imported into the country is sold on to “craft villages”, where it is processed informally, mainly at a household scale.

Informal processing involves washing and melting the plastic, which uses a lot of water and energy and produces a lot of smoke. The untreated water is discharged to waterways and around 20% of the plastic is unusable so it is dumped and usually burnt, creating further litter and air quality problems. Burning plastic can produce harmful air pollutants such as dioxins, furans and polychlorinated biphenyls and the wash water contains a cocktail of chemical residues, in addition to detergents used for washing.

Working conditions at these informal processors are also hazardous, with burners operating at 260-400℃. Workers have little or no protective equipment. The discharge from a whole village of household processors concentrates the air and water pollution in the local area.

Before Vietnam’s ban on imports, craft villages such as Minh Khai, outside Hanoi, had more than 900 households recycling plastic scraps, processing 650 tonnes of plastics per day. Of this, 25-30% was discarded, and 7 million litres of wastewater from washing was discharged each day without proper treatment.


Author provided

These plastic recycling villages existed before the China ban, but during 2018 the flow of plastics increased so much that households started running their operations 24 hours a day.

The rapid increase in household-level plastic recycling has been a great concern to local authorities, due to the hazardous nature of emissions to air and water. In addition, this new industry contributes to an already significant plastic litter problem in Vietnam.

Green growth or self-preservation?

A debate is now being waged in Vietnam, over whether a “green” recycling industry can be developed with better technology and regulations, or whether they must simply protect themselves from this flow of “waste”. Creating environmentally friendly plastic recycling in Vietnam will mean investment in new processing technology, enhancing supply chains, and improving the skills and training for workers in this industry.

Engineers at the Vietnam Cleaner Production Centre (which one of us, Thinh, is the director of) have been working on improving plastic processing systems to recycle water in the process, improve energy efficiency, switch to bio-based detergents and reduce impacts on workers. However, there is a long way to go to improve the vast number of these informal treatment systems.

What can we do in Australia?

While Australia’s contribution to the flow of plastics in Southeast Asia is small compared to that arriving from the United States, Japan and Europe, we estimate it still represents 50-60% of plastics collected for recycling in Australia.

Should we be sending our recyclables to countries that lack capacity to safely process it, and are already struggling to manage their own domestic waste? Should we participate in improving their industrial capacity? Or should we increase our own domestic capacity for recycling?




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While there may be times it makes sense to export our plastics overseas where they are used for manufacturing, the plastics should be clean and uncontaminated. Processes should be in place to make sure they are recycled without causing added harm to communities and local environments.

Australia and other advanced economies need to think seriously about the future of exports, our own collection systems and our “waste” relationships with our neighbours.The Conversation

Monique Retamal, Research Principal, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney; Elsa Dominish, Senior Research Consultant, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney; Le Xuan Thinh, Director, VNCPC; Nguyen, Anh Tuan, Senior researcher, Environment Science Institute, and Samantha Sharpe, Research Director, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Recycling is not enough. Zero-packaging stores show we can kick our plastic addiction



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Frenco, a zero-waste store in Montreal.
Benoit Daoust/Shutterstock.com

Sabrina Chakori, The University of Queensland and Ammar Abdul Aziz, The University of Queensland

Wrapped, sealed, boxed, cling-filmed and vacuum packed. We have become used to consumables being packaged in every way imaginable.

The history of “packaging” goes back to the first human settlements. First leaves, gourds and animals skins were used. Then ceramics, glass and tin. Then paper and cardboard. But with the invention of plastic and the celebration of “throwaway living” since the 1950s, the environmental costs of an overpackaged world have become manifest.

Plastic now litters the planet, contaminating ecosystems and posing a significant threat to wildlife and human health. Food and beverage packaging accounts for almost two-thirds of total packaging waste. Recycling, though important, has proven an incapable primary strategy to cope with the scale of plastic rubbish. In Australia, for example, just 11.8% of the 3.5 million tonnes of plastics consumed in 2016-2017 were recycled.

Bananas wrapped in single-use plastic packaging.
Sabrina Chakori

Initiatives to cut down on waste can initially be strongly resisted by consumers used to the convenience, as shown by the reaction to Australia’s two major supermarket chains phasing out free single-use plastic shopping bags. But after just three months, shoppers have adapted, and an estimated 1.5 billion bags have been prevented from entering the environment.

Can we dispose with our disposable mentality further, by doing something to cut down on all the packaging of our food and beverages?

Yes we can.

The emergence of zero-packaging food stores is challenging the idea that individually packaged items are a necessary feature of the modern food industry. These new businesses demonstrate how products can be offered without packaging. In doing so they provide both environmental and economic benefits.

The zero-packaging alternative

Zero-packaging shops, sometimes known as zero-waste grocery stores, allow customers to bring and refill their own containers. They offer food products (cereals, pasta, oils) and even household products (soap, dishwashing powder). You simply bring your own jars and containers and buy as little or as much as you need.

Negozio Leggero is a zero-packaging chain with stores in Italy, France and Switzerland.
Negozio Leggero

These stores can already be found in many countries across the world. They are more than just individual trading businesses making a small difference.

They are part of an important and growing trend promoting an environmentally sustainable “reuse” mentality. Their way of doing business shows we can change the current ‘linear’ economic system in which we continuously take, make, use and throw away materials.

Rethinking the system

Food packaging is part and parcel of a globalised food market. The greater the distance that food travels, the more packaging is needed.

Zero-packaging stores encourage sourcing locally. They can therefore play an important role in enhancing local economy and supporting local producers. They can help break globalised agribusiness monopolies, regenerating the diversity of rural enterprises and communities. The book Home Grown: The Case for Local Food in a Global Market illustrates the benefits of reclaiming back the food industry.




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Packaging also contributes to another problem with the current industrialised food system. It doubles as an advertising tool, using all the psychological tricks that marketers have to persuade us to buy a brand. These strategies appeal to desire, encouraging people to buy more than what they really need. This has arguably exacerbated problems such as obesity and food waste. It has given multinational conglomerates with large marketing budgets an advantage over small and local producers.

Next steps

Not all of packaging is wasteful. It can stop food spoiling, for example, and enables us to enjoy foods not locally produced. But what is driving the growth of the global food packaging market – expected to be worth US$411.3 billion by 2025 – is rising demand for single-serve and portable food packs due to “lifestyle changes”. Most of us recognise these are not lifestyle changes for the better; they are the result of us spending more time working or commuting, and eating more processed and unhealthier food.




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Zero-packaging stores show, in their own small way, a viable and healthier alternative to the current system. Both for ourselves, local economies and the planet.

While these shops are still niche, governments interested in human and environmental health can help them grow. Bans on plastic bags point to what is possible.

How easily we have adapted to no longer having those bags to carry food a few metres to the car and then to the kitchen show that we, as consumers, can change our behaviour. We can choose, when possible, unpacked products. There is, of course, a small sacrifice in the form of convenience, but we just might find that we benefit more, both personally and for a greater environmental, economic and social good.The Conversation

Sabrina Chakori, PhD Candidate, The University of Queensland and Ammar Abdul Aziz, Lecturer, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The plastic waste crisis is an opportunity for the US to get serious about recycling at home



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Conveyors carry mixed plastic into a device that will shred recycle them at a plastics recycling plant in Vernon, California.
AP Photo/Reed Saxon,File

Kate O’Neill, University of California, Berkeley

A global plastic waste crisis is building, with major implications for health and the environment. Under its so-called “National Sword” policy, China has sharply reduced imports of foreign scrap materials. As a result, piles of plastic waste are building up in ports and recycling facilities across the United States.

In response, support is growing nationally and worldwide for banning or restricting single-use consumer plastics, such as straws and grocery bags. These efforts are also spurred by chilling findings about how micro-plastics travel through oceans and waterways and up the food chain.

I have studied global trade in hazardous wastes for many years and am currently completing a book on the global politics of waste. In my view, today’s unprecedented level of public concern is an opportunity to innovate. There is growing interest in improving plastic recycling in the United States. This means getting consumers to clean and sort recyclables, investing in better technologies for sorting and reusing waste plastics, and creating incentives for producers to buy and use recycled plastic.

Critiques of recycling are not new, and critiques of recycling plastic are many, but I still believe it makes sense to expand, not abandon, the system. This will require large-scale investment and, in the long term, implementing upstream policies, including product bans.

Plastic litter on California beaches has decreased since the state banned single-use plastic bags in 2016.

Easy to use, hard to destroy

Plastics make products lighter, cheaper, easier to assemble and more disposable. They also generate waste, both at the start of their life cycles – the petrochemicals industry is a major source of pollution and greenhouse gas emissions – and after disposal.

The biggest domestic use by far for plastic resin is packaging (34 percent in 2017), followed by consumer and institutional goods (20 percent) and construction (17 percent). Many products’ useful lives can be measured in minutes. Others, especially engineered and industrial plastics, have a longer life – up to 35 years for building and construction products.

After disposal, plastic products take anywhere from five to 600 years to break down. Many degrade into micro-plastic fragments that effectively last forever. Rather like J.R.R. Tolkien’s One Ring, plastics can be permanently destroyed only through incineration at extremely high temperatures.

Why the United States recycles so little plastic

Less than 10 percent of discarded plastics entered the recycling stream in the United States in 2015, compared with 39.1 percent in the European Union and 22 percent in China. Another 15 percent of U.S. plastic waste is burned in waste-to-energy facilities. The remaining 75 percent goes to landfills. These figures do not include any dumping or illegal disposal.


CC BY-ND

Even the most easily recyclable plastics have a lengthy journey from the recycling bin to their final destinations. Many barriers have become painfully apparent since China, which until recently accepted half of all U.S. plastic scrap, implemented its crackdown on March 1, 2018.

First, there are many different types of plastics. Of the seven resin identification codes stamped on the bottom of plastic containers, only 1’s and 2’s are easily recyclable. Public education campaigns have lagged, particularly with respect to cleaning and preparing plastics for recycling. Getting consumers to commit to more stringent systems is critical. But scolding can backfire, as experience with food waste shows.

Another factor is U.S. reliance on single-stream recycling systems, in which all recyclables are placed in the same receptacle. This approach is easier for consumers but produces a mixed stream of materials that is difficult and expensive to sort and clean at recycling facilities.

The United States currently has 633 materials recycling facilities, which can clean, sort and bale a total of 100,000 tons of recyclables per day. Today they are under growing pressure as scrap piles up. Even before China’s restrictions went into effect, materials recycling facilities operators threw out around half of what they received because of contamination. Most are not equipped to meet China’s stringent new contamination standards, and their processing rates have slowed – but garbage production rates have not.

Finally, since China was the U.S. plastic scrap market’s main buyer, its ban has eliminated a key revenue stream for municipal governments. As a result, some waste collection agencies are suspending curbside pickup, while others are raising prices. All 50 states have been affected to some extent.

Over 70 percent of U.S. plastic waste goes to landfills.
USEPA

No silver bullets

Numerous public and private entities are working to find a more viable solution for plastics recycling. They include plastics producers and recyclers, corporations such as Coca-Cola, colleges and universities, foundations, international organizations, advocacy groups and state governments.

Upgrading materials recycling facilities and expanding domestic markets for plastic scrap is an obvious priority but will require large-scale investments. Increasing waste-to-energy incineration is another option. Sweden relies on this approach to maintain its zero waste model.

But incineration is deeply controversial in the United States, where it has declined since 2001, partly due to strong opposition from host communities. Zero-waste and anti-incineration advocates have heavily criticized initiatives such as the Hefty EnergyBag Program, a recent pilot initiative in Omaha, Nebraska to divert plastics to energy production. But small companies like Salt Lake City-based Renewlogy are working to develop newer, cleaner ways to convert plastics to energy.

Efforts to cut plastic use in the United States and other wealthy countries are focusing on single-use products. Initiatives such as plastic straw and bag bans build awareness, but may not significantly reduce the problem of plastic trash by themselves. For example, plastic straws account for only 0.03 percent of the plastic that is likely to enter the oceans in any given year.

Industry is starting to push back, with corporations like McDonald’s resisting straw bans. Some U.S. states have passed measures forbidding plastic bag restrictions.

To stem ocean plastic pollution, better waste management on land is critical, including steps to combat illegal dumping and manage hard-to-recycle plastics. Examples include preventing BPA leaching from discarded products, dechlorinating polyvinyl chloride products, on-site recycling of 3D printer waste, and making virgin-quality plastic out of used polypropylene.

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The Conversation

The European Union is developing a circular economy platform that contains a multi-part strategy to increase plastics recycling and control waste. It includes making all plastic packaging recyclable by 2030 and reducing leakage of plastic products into the environment. The United States is unlikely to adopt such sweeping policies at the national level. But for cities and states, especially those where support for environmental protection is strong, it could be a more attainable vision.

Kate O’Neill, Associate Professor, Global Environmental Politics, University of California, Berkeley

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How to turn the waste crisis into a design opportunity



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David Lisbona/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Tom Lee, University of Technology Sydney; Berto Pandolfo, University of Technology Sydney; Nick Florin, University of Technology Sydney, and Rachael Wakefield-Rann, University of Technology Sydney

You might never have heard of expanded polystyrene, but you’ve definitely used it. It’s the lightweight white foam used for everything from packing peanuts to holding boxes of veggies at the supermarket.

Expanded polystyrene (EPS) is versatile, waterproof, and surprisingly strong. Unfortunately, it’s also a nightmare to dispose of. It fragments easily into many small, light pieces which can be easily carried away by the wind, and is difficult to process.




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Australia exports some EPS to be recycled overseas, but we have less than one collection point per state. All of this means that The NSW Evironmental Protection Agency estimates that some 12,000 tonnes of EPS is sent to landfill every year. According to the Australian Plastics Recycling survey, about 14% of EPS is recovered for recycling. Most of that is exported – only around 1.6% of all the EPS used in Australia is recycled here.

This is why many researchers are looking for ways to re-purpose EPS, taking advantage of this very useful material and keeping it out of landfill.

Turning trash into treasure

Over the past seven weeks our Master of Design students at UTS have been working on this problem. On level two of the UTS tower, down in the carpark, is a piece of machinery that turns EPS into patties of hardened plastic. These are collected on a palette, taken to a processing facility, and turned into low grade industrial products like traffic bumpers.

EPS is fed into the machine at one end. It’s then shredded, heated, and pressed through an opening at the other end.

It coils into a messy sausage on the cement floor, before being quickly worked into a rough disk by a service worker using a rudimentary, rake-like tool. The spectacle is vaguely reminiscent of watching chefs work pizza dough. Every week cluttered stacks of EPS become these compact, easy-to-handle patties.

Artist Peter Trimble uses a similar method to create Rubbish Stools out of EPS. The process removes the air from the material, reducing it to 3-5% of its original volume.

A different kind of meaning emerges when this substance, rather than piling up in an inchoate lump on the floor, transforms into something useful: a chair, bowl, or tray.

Design and systemic change

Design involves finding ways to create value and meaning with materials that might otherwise remain inconspicuous and neglected. Rather than dismiss EPS as redundant packaging, we aim to see it as something with its own inherent functional and aesthetic value.

In their initial experiments my design students discovered that EPS can be a beautiful material. Through the application of heat and use of specific moulds, EPS can take on an organic, porous texture, reminiscent of bone, or an immaculate, plastic sheen, almost like glass.

This intensity of contrast is one of the common attributes of aesthetic beauty. It could easily be turned into an object, such as a vase or bowl, that someone might hold onto for life.

Considered in isolation, these insights are of limited value to a sustainable Australia. It doesn’t help that many people if the UTS gift store begins selling items made from recycled material (although obviously it is a very small improvement).

However, if these things find their way to landfill soon after purchase the sustainability benefit is marginal.




Read more:
If we can’t recycle it, why not turn our waste plastic into fuel?


The more significant change comes when good design helps create a broader shift. For example, could UTS change its recycling systems to accommodate a range of ongoing projects, designed to supply the needs of the university community?

Better still, could those results be applied to large shopping centres, local councils, or small towns? Sometimes seeing the beauty in an overlooked piece of rubbish can open our minds to many different possibilities.


The ConversationThe authors would like to acknowledge Andrew Simpson, founder of Vert Design, for his guidance and teaching expertise in the student project.

Tom Lee, Lecturer, Faculty of Design and Architecture Building, University of Technology Sydney; Berto Pandolfo, Senior Lecturer Product Design, University of Technology Sydney; Nick Florin, Research Director, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney, and Rachael Wakefield-Rann, Research Consultant and PhD Candidate, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

If we can’t recycle it, why not turn our waste plastic into fuel?



File 20180514 178746 ba0vjx.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Could this be turned into fuel, instead of just more plastic?
Shutterstock.com

Muxina Konarova, The University of Queensland

Australia’s recycling crisis needs us to look into waste management options beyond just recycling and landfilling. Some of our waste, like paper or organic matter, can be composted. Some, like glass, metal and rigid plastics, can be recycled. But we have no immediate solution for non-recyclable plastic waste except landfill.

At a meeting last month, federal and state environment ministers endorsed an ambitious target to make all Australian packaging recyclable, compostable or reusable by 2025. But the ministers also showed support for processes to turn our waste into energy, although they did not specifically discuss plastic waste as an energy source.




Read more:
A crisis too big to waste: China’s recycling ban calls for a long-term rethink in Australia


The 100% goal could easily be achieved if all packaging were made of paper or wood-based materials. But realistically, plastic will continue to dominate our packaging, especially for food, because it is moisture-proof, airtight, and hygienic.

Most rigid plastic products can only be recycled a few times before they lose their original properties and become non-recyclable. Even in European countries with strict waste management strategies, only 31% of plastic waste is recycled.

Worldwide plastic production is predicted to increase by 3.8% every year until 2030. Flexible, non-recyclable plastic materials are used in an increasing range of applications like packaging, 3D printing, and construction.

We need to expand our range of options for keeping this plastic waste out of landfill. One potential approach is “plastic to energy”, which unlocks the chemical energy stored in waste plastic and uses it to create fuel.

How plastic to energy works

Plastic is made from refined crude oil. Its price and production are dictated by the petrochemical industry and the availability of oil. As oil is a finite natural resource, the most sustainable option would be to reduce crude-oil consumption by recycling the plastic and recovering as much of the raw material as possible.

There are two types of recycling: mechanical and chemical. Mechanical recycling involves sorting, cleaning and shredding plastic to make pellets, which can then be fashioned into other products. This approach works very well if plastic wastes are sorted according to their chemical composition.

Chemical recycling, in contrast, turns the plastic into an energy carrier or feedstock for fuels. There are two different processes by which this can be done: gasification and pyrolysis.

Gasification involves heating the waste plastic with air or steam, to produce a valuable industrial gas mixtures called “synthesis gas”, or syngas. This can then be used to produce diesel and petrol, or burned directly in boilers to generate electricity.

In pyrolysis, plastic waste is heated in the absence of oxygen, which produces mixture of oil similar to crude oil. This can be further refined into transportation fuels.

One of the advantages of plastic waste-to-fuel is that plastic doesn’t have to be separated into different types.
Author provided

Gasification and pyrolysis are completely different processes to simply incinerating the plastic. The main goal of incineration is simply to destroy the waste, thus keeping it out of landfill. The heat released from incineration might be used to produce steam to drive a turbine and generate electricity, but this is only a by-product.

Gasification and pyrolysis can produce electricity or fuels, and provide more flexible ways of storing energy than incineration. They also have much lower emissions of sulfur and nitrogen oxides than incineration.

Currently, incineration plants are viewed as an alternative energy supply source and a modern way of driving a circular economy, particularly in Japan, South Korea and China, where land is valuable and energy resources are scarce. In other countries, although waste incineration is common practice, the debate around human health impacts, supply issues and fuel trade incentives remains unresolved.

Can Australia embrace plastic to waste?

Gasification of plastic waste needs significant initial financing. It requires pre-treatment, cleanup facilities, gas separation units, and advanced control systems. Pyrolysis units, on the other hand, can be modular and be installed to process as little as 10,000 tonnes per year – a relatively small amount in waste management terms. Plastic pyrolysis plants have already been built in the UK, Japan and the United States.

As pyrolysis and gasification technologies can only process plastics, many councils do not see major advantages in using them. But by taking only a specific waste stream, they encourage better waste sorting and help to reduce the flow of mixed waste and plastic litter.




Read more:
The recycling crisis in Australia: easy solutions to a hard problem


Australia has invested a serious amount of funding into research, particularly in waste conversion. It has a solid industrialised infrastructure and a highly skilled workforce. The current recycling crisis offers an opportunity to explore some innovative ways of turning our waste into valuable products.

There are direct job opportunities in plastic conversion plants, and indirect jobs around installation, maintenance and distribution of energy and fuels. We might even see jobs in R&D to explore other waste conversion technologies.

The ConversationIn the meantime, the plastic we send to landfill is damaging our environment and harming wildlife. That needs to change, and Australia should consider plastic waste-to-energy as part of that change.

Muxina Konarova, Advanced Queensland Research Fellow, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.