Americans recycle 6.3 billion pounds of plastics per year. While that’s an impressive number, there still is much more work to be done. Fortunately, over time, a steady drumbeat of new technologies has helped streamline the recycling process and increase efficiency … so even more plastics can live on in new products.
Here are six innovative technologies that could boost plastics recycling in the future … and help us continue the recycling momentum.
1. Quick learner
Recycling meets artificial intelligence? Meet “Clarke,” a recycling robot equipped with AI that can identify and separate materials at super-human speeds. Algorithms enable Clarke to detect packaging details such as logos and images—and then recognize them for sorting. This could help keep more recyclable plastic materials out of landfills.
2. A dynamic duo
Polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP) account for two-thirds of our plastics we use, and recyclers typically separate them for recycling. But researchers say that adding a special polymer to used PE and PP can create a tough new plastic that’s easier to recycle. The researchers also say this new plastic is tough enough to make packaging using even less material than today’s packaging, which could be good news for the environment.
3. Reducing costs
Plastics recycling often uses water to clean and cool plastics. To make recycling even better for the environment, some recyclers have developed technologies that can clean, cool, and create recycled plastics without water. These technologies also can help reduce energy consumption. Reduced water and energy use could lead to added environmental benefits and lower recycling costs.
4. Detect, point, and … puff?
Recyclers typically collect several different types of plastics. Hand sorting can be slow and expensive, so more and more recyclers are turning to a high-tech solution: infrared (IR) laser. IR beams shine on the various plastics and detect their different compositions, and then air spurts puff the various plastics into separate streams for recycling.5.
5. Roll up your sleeves
You know those shrink wrap sleeves on some plastic beverage containers? These labels may help you figure out what’s in the bottle, but sometimes they can gum up recycling processes. If the label is mixed with plastic bottles, the quality of the recycled plastics can suffer. But an advanced system can now readily remove most of the labels without damaging the bottles—this can reduce waste and help more plastic bottles get recycled.
6. Clean and clear
A new technology will remove color, odor, and other contaminants from post-use polypropylene, the type of plastic commonly used for yogurt cups and bottle caps. Researchers say the result is a resin that’s as good as new. A large new facility based on this technology is being constructed in Ironton, Ohio.
These and other promising innovations could help make plastics recycling more efficient, save natural resources, and help more used plastics become new, useful products. But remember that technology alone won’t ensure that we continue to recycle more plastics—it’s up to all of us to be sure our plastics make it into the recycle bin.