The new “single-sort” method makes it possible to reuse previously non-recyclable products.
Corvallis, Oregon — Many people know the motto ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’. But what’s the benefit of recycling if what people put in their trash isn’t truly recycled?
Scientists at Oregon State University (OSU) may be close to solving this problem once and for all. They have developed a new process for recycling that eliminates the most difficult step of material sorting. This is usually done by number. A small number surrounded by an arrow is imprinted on almost all plastic products.
The problem with number systems is that not all numbers can be universally recycled everywhere, as different numbers require different recycling processes. For example, in Portland only certain size containers are recyclable. The numbers are completely arbitrary. Only numbers 2, 4 and 5 will be in the curbside bin while in Eugene. Corvallis only accepts his fifth product alongside plastic bottles and jugs.
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The big problem here is the lack of awareness and consistency of practice across the board. A process developed by OSU researchers and the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) recycles a mixture of different plastics of varying shapes, sizes, and types into a single new plastic.
This method uses oxygen and different chemicals to blend several different types of plastics into one cohesive blend. This process occurs naturally, but over hundreds of years. A new procedure developed by OSU and NREL accelerates this process and takes only minutes.
It also solves the multi-layer packaging problem. These products are, by definition, made of two or more different types of plastic, making them nearly impossible to recycle using current methods. All existing technologies require the plastic to be sorted by type, making recycling nearly impossible. Also, the plastic must be clean. Because this new method chemically alters the plastic, impurities such as food waste and dirt are less of an issue.
The “single sort” method is more desirable for commercial recyclers as it requires less manpower. Most street recycling programs require residents to put everything in her one bin and sort the mixture before processing it. As many cities outsource recycling to private companies, companies often choose to accept fewer types of plastic to keep their operations profitable.
Corvallis is a prime example. The city outsources its recycling to Republic Services. They collect only a fifth product, along with easily available fruits, such as plastic bottles and jugs, which are generally easy to recycle. The name of the recycling game is to make recycling easier and more profitable for local private businesses.
It should also be desirable for large international industries. Plastic waste has become a major problem both in the United States and the world. According to NREL, only his 5% of all plastic is recycled. By making the process cheaper and bringing together a fragmented recycling market, the OSU and NREL methods will increase the viability of the international market.
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Change has to happen sooner or later. According to NREL, at current rates there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050.
There are several major initiatives in Oregon to address this problem, such as James Neighborhood Recycling. The company hosts events in the Portland area where people can bring any and all plastics for recycling. However, they still rely on outdated technology and manually separate waste, which limits the amount they can handle. They are fighting an uphill battle.
The OSU discovery is promising. Their method has the ability to produce not one but two desired products, depending on the blend of chemicals used. The study found that scientists could make either blends of nylon that could be used in fabric production, or new forms of promising biodegradable plastics.
For more information on how to recycle in your community, visit How2Recycle.info.