Ragpickers search for reusable items from a rubbish heap at the Sevapura landfill in Jaipur, Rajasthan, India, Wednesday April 7, 2021.

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Humans generate a remarkable amount of garbage: over 2 billion tons per year, or roughly 4.5 trillion pounds per year, according to the World Bank. And that number will grow. Global garbage is projected to reach 3.4 billion tons by 2050.

Even if you could figure out where to dump so much rubbish, there will be dangerous greenhouse gases released that are contributing to climate change. Solid waste landfills are the third largest source of methane emissions in the United States, according to the latest data from the Environmental Protection Agency. In 2019, landfills released 15% of methane emissions, the equivalent of emissions from more than 21.6 million passenger cars driven for a year.

Recycling is not a panacea. In addition, there is a large gap between what can be recycled and what is actually recycled. Dry recyclable materials such as plastic, paper and cardboard, metal and glass account for 38% of municipal waste, according to the What a Waste 2.0 report by the World Bank. Only 13.5% of these dry materials are now being recycled worldwide.

Tech companies are trying to address the garbage problem from different directions, improving recycling processes, and creating new materials to make compostable disposable products.

The US waste management industry can use the aid. Richer countries recycle better than poorer countries, but the United States isn’t high on the list, recycling 34.6% of its trash. While poor countries only recycle 3.7% on average and many do not recycle at all or have no data, some of the best rates are in Europe and especially in some of the smallest areas like the Faroe Islands, a self-governing archipelago that is part of the Kingdom Denmark is number 1 in the world and recycles 67% of its waste.

Recycling costs, profits and automation

“The basic principles of recycling are collecting, sorting, manual and / or mechanical processing and then delivering the required quality of recycled materials to the manufacturing industry,” said Ross Bartley, Trade and Environment Director of the Brussels, Belgium-based office International recycling, said CNBC. “Even in industrialized countries, manual sorting may be required, which can be supplemented and possibly replaced by automated sorting systems using appropriate technologies.”

According to Bartley, the automated sorting is carried out using magnets, flotation, wind grids (to separate light and heavy materials) and cameras, among other things. Such devices can be purchased from stock and integrated into recycling systems.

However, some of the most important questions include the cost of the separation equipment, the total cost of ownership per ton of materials processed, and the added value for each of the separated material streams. In other words, “When is it profitable?” Said Bartley.

Matanya Horowitz, the founder and CEO of AMP Robotics, who is 25th on this year’s CNBC Disruptor 50 list, came up with and experienced his big recycling idea after visiting a material recovery facility (MRF) – the destination for private and commercial recyclables not just how demanding the working conditions are, but how inefficient the process can be.

More coverage of the 2021 CNBC Disruptor 50

Horowitz looked for applications of robotic technology that could be improved. He received his PhD from the California Institute of Technology, where he worked on several challenges for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). “That helped me understand what works well in robotics and what remains a challenge,” he told CNBC.

Horowitz knew that computer vision could improve the work of sorting garbage for recycling. In July 2014, Horowitz launched AMP Robotics, raised $ 77.8 million and employed nearly 130 people. In April 2020, AMP Robotics announced that it processed more than a billion recyclable objects per year.

A major challenge for AMP Robotics is that sorting garbage is infinitely complex. “Recycling is a difficult business,” says Horowitz. “You have no control over the materials you are processing, and there are all kinds of weird contaminants that people put in their trash bins. The result is that you have to build exceptionally tough, powerful equipment.”

AMP Robotics uses robotics and artificial intelligence to sort the recycling.

Photo courtesy of AMP Robotics

He is aware of the historical inadequacies of recycling. “These materials (plastics, metals, paper) all have real value. The problem is that the cost of sorting loses that value,” says Horowitz. “When you lower the cost of sorting, you get more leeway with all of these materials, and of course you will find an incentive to collect this material. That is exactly what our technology does and how we accomplish our mission to create a world without waste enable . “

Horowitz is optimistic. “A quote I’ve always liked is,” Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, “he said.

According to Steve Alexander, the president and CEO of the Association of Plastic Recyclers, consumer brands can also help increase the success of the recycling supply chain by designing packaging that can be recycled.

A label on a soda bottle that is high in glue or ink may not match other recyclable designs in the soda bottle category and can actually contaminate that stream.

“Even though it was separated as a soda or water bottle, it could still contaminate,” Alexander told CNBC. “It’s all about design. The first thing we need to do is make sure that the products we buy are compatible with recycling.”

Brands are being pushed to make their packaging recyclable better and more transparently based on consumer demand. “It’s on the goodwill of the consumer-branded company right now,” says Alexander, but there is interest in government regulations dictating the design of consumer-branded packages.

Manufacture of compostable disposable packaging

Troy Swope, CEO of Footprint, a technology company focused on eliminating single-use plastics through the design and manufacture of compostable containers, says focusing on improving plastics recycling is the wrong solution.

“To be very clear, recycling is a joke when it comes to plastic,” said Swope. “It’s one of the biggest lies we’ve ever been told.”

Swope pointed to CarbonLite Holdings, a major plastic bottle recycler, which filed for bankruptcy protection in March. “Without value, no matter what we do with the infrastructure … if in the end nobody wants it, nature can’t digest it, it doesn’t mean anything. It has no value,” he said.

Troy Swope, Co-Founder and CEO of Footprint

Photo courtesy of Footprint

To be very clear: recycling is a joke when it comes to plastic.

Arizona-based Footprint, ranked 45th on this year’s CNBC Disruptor 50 list, focuses on making compostable, single-use products from cellulose, plant-based materials such as recycled cardboard, wood fiber and agricultural waste. The goal is for all products to be biodegradable or compostable within 90 days or less.

And that on a large scale. “We’re going to ship close to a billion units this year, probably just under a billion units from three factories,” Swope told CNBC.

Footprint’s current customers include McDonalds, SweetGreen and Conagra Brands.

“Next year we’re going to sell billions of units,” said Swope.

Footprint currently has three factories, one in Arizona, one in South Carolina, and a third in Mexico. A research center is currently being built in the Netherlands and a production facility in Poland.

Questioning the environmental impact

“I think recycling, and I say this as a recycling company, is not an answer to trash,” said Tom Szaky, CEO of recycling company Terracycle and zero-waste packaging company Loop, at a recent CNBC Evolve livestream event. “It’s an answer to the rubbish symptom, maybe the best way to get rid of rubbish, but I think we need to go much deeper and enable a no-rubbish economy.”

Indeed, this is a plug for Szaky’s company, Loop, where partners from consumer brands work together to achieve “reusability ideally as availability”.

But there is also a nuance of the garbage problem that David Allaway, op Senior Policy Analyst at the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality Materials Management Program in Portland, Oregon, reported on the environmental impact of recycling.

“In this country, most of the impacts of consumer products, single-use items and packaging – whether it be toxins, climate change, water scarcity, habitat disruption, or any other impact – are not due to disposal as a result of supply chains, manufacturing and production,” Allaway told CNBC . “And as our research has shown, items that are ‘recyclable’ and ‘compostable’ are not necessarily better for the environment or have a lower impact on human health than functionally equivalent items that are not ‘recyclable’ or ‘compostable’ are.”

That is not to say that recyclability and composability are necessarily not helpful.

Articles with these popular attributes might be less effective, and some of them are less effective, but recyclability and composability are inconsistent predictors of environmental goodness, according to his work, which summarizes roughly 17 years of international research on the subject.

For example, elemental mercury is very recyclable but a bad neurotoxin, and whale is compostable but still not a desirable raw material.

“Just knowing that an item is ‘recyclable’ or ‘compostable’ says surprisingly little about its real impact on human health and the environment or the tradeoffs between different materials,” Allaway said.

There are also downstream effects of waste decomposition.

“Biodegradable is a great solution in countries where there is a lack of solid waste management infrastructure. In this country where most of our non-recycled waste is landfilled, biodegradable means the material decomposes and produces methane Which is a powerful greenhouse gas. ”Allaway said.

He warns that promoting these popular attributes like “recyclable” and “compostable” is a common marketing strategy, in line with popular wisdom that “is always popular but not always wise”.

In his opinion, it is most important that manufacturers quantify the overall environmental impact of a good with a life cycle assessment. Otherwise, Allaway said, society has no way of knowing whether any of these efforts will steer us towards actual sustainability or just “feel good” shifts in pollution with visible, obvious forms like plastic in the oceans.

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