Unlocking Circular Potential
A circular economy takes production processes into consideration, promoting the reuse, repair, recycling, recovery and upcycling of materials and products. While making headway on the variety of wastes they can manage sustainably, the waste management industry’s remaining challenge is to find solutions for waste categorised as non-recyclable.
Waste can be classified as non-recyclable for several reasons not limited to contaminated material, blends or combined wastes, regulatory restrictions, and technology limitations. This means that the industry typically follows a linear material flow from production to landfill. The issue is that following this linear path prevents valued materials and compounds making their way back into production, as they are only used in one state before being discarded.
The solution is to incorporate sustainable and flexible technologies to assist current practices and transform the existing linear structure into a circular system by preventing these valued materials and compounds from being destroyed or discarded.
One solution that offers circular potential is pyrolysis. The flexible oxygen-free process is not only capable of processing the non-recyclable and troublesome wastes discussed. It also enables circular waste management by diverting waste from landfill and transforming it into a resource.
Three ways pyrolysis enables circularity
A fundamental part of a circular economy is removing the need for primary raw materials through the recovery and reuse of materials, e.g. Copper wire from automotive residue. Mining and natural resource excavation have a detrimental effect on the natural environment. The pressure on the environment is substantially reduced by preventing raw materials being discarded as waste and returning them to production.
Pyrolysis enables the recovery of metals, glass or compounds so that they can be recycled for repeated use in production or manufacturing. Pyrolysis technology has been successfully used to sustainably recover the metal componentry concealed within non-recyclable polymers. This capability allows for the processing and recovery of raw material from troublesome wastes, such as child car seats, Automotive Shredder Residue (ASR), and electronic waste (WEEE) which contain precious and finite raw materials. Furthermore, due to the flexibility and control of pyrolysis processes, it is also possible to recover compounds such as calcium carbonate, which can be reused in the manufacture of carpet tiles.
In Europe, only 15% of plastic waste is currently being recycled (Chemical & Engineering News) . Pyrolysis allows for the chemical recycling of plastics. Depolymerisation processes are able to breakdown PET into their raw chemical compounds to be reused. The process does not require refined polymers, like traditional recycling technologies, which means they are considerably less fussy about their feedstocks.
The main advantage of pyrolysis depolymerisation processes is the minimal losses in the material. For example, a PET water bottle can only be traditionally recycled six times before the material is unusable. Comparatively, pyrolysis depolymerisation processes retain such a high level of material content that a bottle can become almost infinitely recyclable. Due to the transformation of product to raw material, depolymerisation is able to transform a bottle to a sweater, to a bag and back to a bottle on the same near-infinite cycle.
Upcycling is the reuse of discarded objects or material in such a way as to create a product of higher quality or value than the original.
The end product of the pyrolysis process is char. Char is made up of trapped carbon and inert material. The char can be upcycled by combining with aggregate for construction or refined as biochar to regenerate low fertility soil.
Carbon chars can be used in construction aggregates, such as road construction shingle, land works filler material, or general aggregate blends, permanently trapping the otherwise harmful carbon gas derivatives in a solid-state.
Alternatively, when organic material is processed, the char can be refined as biochar. Due to its honeycomb structure, biochar has a vast surface area and has been used for its soil regenerative properties as far back as the Aztecs. One gram of activated carbon char can have a surface area in excess of 500m2. This is ideal for enhancing soils due to its ability to harbour beneficial microfauna and prevent nutrients from being washed out of the soil.
Recently, biochar has become a talking point on the issues of over-farming and the continuous use of chemical fertilisers and herbicides. Due to the growing pressure from increased populations and agricultural requirements, farmers have turned to spreading vast quantities of these chemicals on the land to ensure their crops’ success. The issue with this method of produce cultivation is that these chemicals leach from the soil entering waterways and the natural environment with devastating effects. Ironically, this leaching leads to more chemicals for the next crop, compounding the negative environmental impact.
The use of biochar helps store organic nutrients and helps prevent the leaching of chemical fertilisers and herbicides by trapping them within the intended soil. Ultimately its use lowers the quantity and frequency that these chemicals are used while promoting the natural regeneration of the soil.
Circularity is now key to the waste management industry’s environmental goals. To achieve this, they must continue to adopt innovative technologies and solutions that solve the linear issue and avoid landfill.
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