Recycling is easy if you know how
Technology and the latest advances are inspiring new ways to recycle all kinds of materials, from traditional plastic and glass to electronic components and coffee fibres. The recycling revolution is even transforming rubbish collection trucks. Sign up now to the most green of innovations.
For years, we have heard the same refrain: separate your waste; plastic goes in the yellow bin; tetra packs are not cardboard; glass into the green bin; don’t leave bottle tops on. Recycle, recycle, recycle. A refrain that, fortunately, is increasingly getting through to people. Although sometimes it can seem like a chore, recycling is essential.
Irresponsible exploitation is strangling the planet and we should all be doing our bit to help. Recycling is a good way to start, because it leads to significant benefits in terms of saving raw materials, energy and water, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. According to European Union objectives, by 2025 all EU members should be recycling at least 55% of municipal waste. By 2035, that figure should have reached 65%. At present, countries like Spain and Portugal are lagging behind the European average of 45%, so every little helps.
As in all sectors, innovation has knocked on the door of recycling and technology is giving the green light to new ideas so that recycling can be increasingly efficient. New projects to facilitate recycling in cities, reuse materials that before were thrown away, develop new systems for the collection of rubbish and have a positive impact from home. This is the latest in innovation and recycling.
Return the bottle, get your money back and help the environment
When an idea works, the best thing to do is to copy it. In Germany, 99% of reusable containers are recycled. Scandinavian countries have recycling figures of between 80% and 95%. What’s the miracle? Pfand. It is a measure that is implemented in supermarkets and other retailers that sell drinks. A supplement of between 8 and 25 cents per bottle purchased is added, and this is returned to the customer when they bring it back to the recycling point in any shop that sells it. Now, Spain wants to implement this system of returning bottles, and initiatives have already been put in place in the Valencia region, Catalonia, the Balearic Islands and Navarra.
The resurrection of plastic
DIY has gained many followers in recent years. What could be better than linking it to recycling? Especially when we’re talking about reusing plastic, that immortal material that is clogging up the oceans. According to data from Greenpeace, waste that ends up in the sea adds up to the horrifying figure of two million tonnes per year, an amount that is equivalent in weight to 800 Eiffel Towers.
For this reason, in 2006 the Dutch designer Dave Hakkens launched Precious Plastic, a platform for anyone to build a small plastic recycling plant in their home. It offers free manuals, plans and videos that explain in minute detail how to build (with materials and tools that are basic, cheap and easy to find anywhere in the world) a series of machines for recycling.
As a result you can get door latches, containers, lamps, cutlery holders and anything else that your imagination can think of to give plastic a second lease of life.
Environmentally friendly furniture in your living room
Another initiative that seeks to convert waste into useful things comes from Colombia. The country is a leader in coffee production, which involves 500,000 tonnes per year of waste coffee husks, according to calculations made by the entrepreneur Juan Nicolás Suárez. His company Diseclar creates a new material from recycled plastic and coffee fibres, which is ideal for the manufacture of architectural finishes, as well as furniture, and it also respects the environment.
Robots that reuse your phone
We no longer only recycle bottles, office papers or organic waste. If there is something that abounds on the planet and that has not stopped growing in recent years, it is electronic waste. What happens to a broken smartphone? And that tablet that doesn’t work any more? The Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology in Moscow (Russia) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (USA) are working together to build robots that disassemble electronic devices so that they can later be recycled.
The project is called Recybot and its aim is to create a high-speed smart robotic system that takes apart electronic components into recyclable parts that can then be reused. In order to do this, they use artificial vision and neural networks.
Where can we take electronic devices that are no longer of use to us? No, don’t let it occur to you to throw them into the first rubbish bin that you see. Instead, you can hand in your old device to the same establishment where you bought it, or to the shop where you’re going to buy a new one. Furthermore, there is an extensive network of Collection Points for electronic devices in Spain. You no longer have an excuse. With this small act it will be possible to recuperate up to 90% of the material from your old mobile phone and you will be contributing to the circular economy.
Every year 100 billion garments are manufactured, according to Greenpeace data. 40% are not worn. As consumers, we should look after our clothing and try to use it for as long as possible, because reducing the amount that is manufactured would avoid carbon dioxide emissions, waste products and waste water. The total emissions of greenhouse gases by textile production alone represent 1.2 billion tonnes per year. Nonetheless, fashion reigns supreme, we change our wardrobes frequently and we consume more.
If we want to be fashionable, we should at least do it sustainably. We can opt for Ecoalf: all of their fabric is made from recycled material, and they use technology and R&D to create the highest quality sustainable products.
Another option is Pure Waste, in southern India, where they recycle textile waste, produce new garments and use renewable energy. Great designers like Moisés Nieto and María Clè Leal have also put recycling on the catwalk. Dress stylishly, whilst also using your head.
"Just by recycling three bottles, sufficient energy is saved to charge the battery of a smartphone for a year"
Containers to be used and recycled
In Spain there are more than twice as many glass recycling bins than there are bars (218,000 compared to 101,397, according to the latest statistics from Ecovidrio and the Spanish Federation for the Hotel and Catering Industries). A good reason to leave those excuses behind and recycle on the way to drink a few beers. In order to make decisions about the location of these recycling bins, at Ecovidrio they use big data, taking into account factors like the location of hotels and catering establishments, who need to use them diligently.
But recycling begins at home, with the separation of waste. “People associate the recycling of glass with the green igloo, so we made a little version (the Miniglú) so that they can have it at home and be motivated”, explains Laura García, technical operations manager at Ecovidrio.
Technology is also present in the glass treatment facility, as García explains: “We use optical separators that, through a process using infrareds, picks out reusable material from other impurities”.
The glass that ends up in recycling bins is recycled 100% (from one bottle you get another exactly the same) and in the process energy is saved, less carbon dioxide is emitted and natural resources are used optimally. “Just by recycling three bottles, sufficient energy is saved to charge the battery of a smartphone for a year”, states García. Every time you plug in your charger, remember the importance of recycling glass.
Recycle your medication and make the world more healthy
We accumulate box after box of medication in a drawer: some that we no longer need, others that have gone out of date at some point. Rather than throwing them into a normal bin, or worse, down the waste water pipe or into a natural environment where they could damage the ecosystem or pollute, the best thing to do is to take them to a SIGRE bin. From there they are used to make new materials and fuel.
In the United States, the situation is more tricky because there is no public health and many people cannot pay for their medication. Stanford University (USA) created a platform so that hospitals, pharmacies, residences and schools can take unused medication to be reused and handed over to basic healthcare.
Wall-B, the refuse collector robot
Like Wall-E, the endearing robot who cleans rubbish left by humans in a dystopic future planet Earth, Wall-B is a refuse collector robot. Sadako Technologies created this robotic arm controlled by a system of automatic vision and artificial intelligence to selectively pick up PET waste in treatment plants. A computer processes images of waste and picks out packaging made of this type of plastic; Wall-B grabs them to separate them from the rest. This kind of robot makes the process cheaper and increases the volume of recycled waste.
Innovation even with trucks
Deforestation is stripping our planet bare. Every year we use 115 billion sheets of paper in offices and 90% of the pulp of this cellulose comes from trees. Since 1990, 129 million hectares of forests have been lost (a surface area almost the size of South Africa), according to the study Evaluation of global forest resources 2015 by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).
The CEO of the Spanish Association of Paper and Cardboard Recyclers (REPACAR), Manuel Domínguez, explains that the life of recovered cellulose is shortened every time it is reused, supporting up to eight cycles, and needing to have some virgin fibre added each time.
Over recent years the logistics, cleaning and treatment of the material has been improved, but we need to keep making progress, as Domínguez points out: “Above all, we are trying to innovate in logistics, to optimise transport costs and minimise these vehicles’ impact on the environment. We use computer systems based on big data that optimise collection routes and sensors in the bins to alert us to when they are full”. Similar initiatives are underway around the world, for example in Bergen (Norway) and also in Spain at the hands of Ecovidrio. The days of having to leave a box on the pavement because its contents won’t fit in the bin are over.
Don’t forget: separate your waste; cardboard into the blue bin; glass jars should be thrown away without their lid; batteries go to the correct recycling point. Recycle, recycle, recycle. The planet will thank you for it.
By Patricia Ruiz Guevara