Recycling in the Age of Tech.

1.3 billion tons of trash per year. Transporting these represent 50% of greenhouse gas emissions. How will a tech & sustainable civilization deal with this? Here are the solutions!

Humanity has a waste problem. Globally, we generate about 1.3 billion tons of trash per year, far more than we can properly process or recycle. This leads to environmental tragedies like ocean plastic pollution and geopolitical tensions as Western countries search for new places to stash their trash.

Because we waste so much, we must extract unsustainable quantities of natural resources to keep pace with growing consumption. OECD has calculated that flow of materials through acquisition, transportation, processing, manufacturing, use, and disposal are already responsible for approximately 50 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. The UN International Resources Panel projects the use of natural resources to more than double by 2050.

So, how did we get here?

Recycling isn’t a historical issue.

The concept of recycling dates back to almost a millennium ago, precisely 1031. During that time, the Japanese Imperial Court of the Heian period was facing a decline, the production of paper gradually merged into the hands of the society.

This is when estate owners started to produce a paper of their own; but in order to maximize output and conserve materials, these business entities started reusing paper. Six centuries later, the Rittenhouse Mill, America’s first paper mill, had an even brighter idea. They started to incorporate the use of old fabrics, cotton, and linen to produce a paper of their own. Sure, the process is different, but the same product. In 1776, something revolutionary happened- the first metal recycling. At the time of the American Revolution, the Americans were fighting for their independence against the British. The Americans came up with a grand idea.

In New York City, they tore down the statue of King George III, melted the statue, and used most of the materials gained from the statue to craft bullets in an effort to help the war effort. This was something unthinkable at the time, but making use of waste indeed is cost AND material-efficient. As we progress through our timeline, the concept of recycling is apparent ranging from aluminum recycling to plastic recycling.

Along the way, bizarre ideas would pop up, but guess what, those ideas work! Before, recycling had the goal of being cost-efficient and material conservant; however, through the industrial revolution and many other human advancements, the production of goods became unsustainable.

This changed the primary objective of recycling- to reduce pollution. True, in our present day, there’s the “green economy”, NGOs, corporates, and other groups/charities that are promoting recycling for a greener world. A lot of people have transitioned into living a “greener” life, yet, a lot of people still fail to realize this concept and still continue to pollute the environment. Hence, greenhouse gases are being emitted, and other forms of pollution are being introduced into our environment.

Why do we waste so much stuff?

Littering and production waste as a result of the failure to recycle has contributed to a huge amount of pollution in today’s world. On average, we dump approximately 2.12 billion tons of waste on an annual basis.

Imagine if we had to put 2.12 billion tons of waste on trucks, they would go around the world approximately 24 times. That’s a big number. Now get this- for waste such as plastic, approximately 91% of plastic ISN’T recycled. That’s a huge number of plastic out of billions of tons of plastics produced.  

At this rate, global waste is deemed to increase to 3.40 billion tons by 2050. Waste pollution is very prominent in our environment. The huge waste build-up will only result in impacting our environments negatively, threatening tens of thousands of species with extinction.

For example, the Pacific Gyres (the great Pacific garbage patch), in which a huge accumulation of litter groups up together in the middle of the ocean, a size even bigger than 2 Texas states. Why is the garbage so big? Below is a graph showing the distribution of how global waste is being treated.

These numbers show a percentage of how global waste is treated. As you can see, 33% of global waste is an open dump, which means waste is just being dumped in landfills in a manner that doesn’t protect/conserve our environment. But get this, 13.5% are recycled, less than half of open dump, which is quite a low number in comparison.

What we see here is the composition of global waste. Food and green waste contribute the highest amount of waste in the environment. Although it may not sound as bad as things such as plastic, it is still detrimental to the environment. Once those wastes rot, they emit methane, a greenhouse gas, which contributes to global warming. And knowing that most of these wastes aren’t being recycled, at this rate, we can only see a decline in our environmental health for the years to come.

Plastic pollution is also a big thing. It takes centuries to decompose, and through its decomposition process, it emits toxic substances bad for the environment and various living organisms. For example, let’s take a look at the flow of plastic materials worldwide between 1950-2017

We see that total plastic pollution sits at approximately 9.2 billion metric tons between those years. As you can see, out of the 9.2 billion, 5 billion metric tons of plastic ends up as waste. This is even worse- only 600 million (approximately 6.52%) metric tons of plastic are recycled, which is very low compared to how much plastic was produced. And out of that, only 200 million (2.17%) metric tons of recycled plastic is still in use. That gives us a rough idea that there isn’t enough recycling going on in our environment.

This goes for things such as metal pollution two. It disrupts nutrient cycles in plants, which in turn, causes developmental disorders in animals and humans. Now the big question comes- who is contributing to such a huge amount of waste? We found that high-income countries generate 34% (683 million tons) of global waste and that there is a positive correlation between income level and waste generation.

In addition, it is projected that low-income levels, although generating less global waste right now, the increase in the rate of waste generation will be much more incremental compared to upper-level income levels. By 2050, it is predicted that low-level income countries will see a TRIPLE in their waste generation. However, different countries around the world also aim to manage their wastes in order to lead a more sustainable lifestyle, as damaging the environment will ultimately damage them. 

As we can see, all levels of income aim to collect and manage waste; however, there is quite a large disparity in the percentage of waste collection rates among different levels of income, with high-income countries providing most waste collection.

Here are the solutions!

Going back to the first section, I’ve briefly discussed the history of recycling. Recycling seems to be perceived as the “best” and “most socially responsible” way to deal with waste. Not only is it cost-effective, but it is also sustainable. A lot of corporations and business tycoons are jumping into recycling as a part of their business plan to maximize their profits even further, or perhaps, part of their CSR initiatives.

Let’s take a look at some huge corporations that are fully utilizing the concept of recycling:

  1. GFL Environmental Inc.: One of the biggest Canadian recycling companies founded in 2007 by Patrick Dovigi. They offer their services in waste collection, recycling collection, bulky/large item collection, and vacuum trucks. They provide their services to municipal, residential, commercial, industrial, and institutional customers. In 2019, the company generated a total of $3.347 billion in revenue with over 15,000 employees as of December 31, 2020, with prospects to grow even further. 

  2. Clean Harbors: Founded by Alan McKim in 1980 in Norwalk, United Kingdom, the company specializes in environmental, energy, and industrial services. In addition, it also provides hazardous waste disposal services for companies (including the Fortune 500), small waste generators, and various government entities (federal, state, provincial, and local). Currently, there are over 400 service locations throughout North America, Canada, and Puerto Rico, and currently generates approximately $3.4 billion annually.

  3. Covanta Energy Corporation: Founded in 1939 in New Jersey, CVA (previously known as Ogden Corporation) currently ranks 9th of the biggest recycling companies in the world. The company specializes in energy-from-waste (waste conversion into energy) and industrial waste management services (e.g. waste disposal) and collects metal goods for recycling. Currently, the company generates approximately $1.8 billion in revenue annually.

  4. Veolia Environmental Services:  Headquartered in Paris, France, Veolia Environmental Services was established in 1853. With the goal to reduce environmental impact, the company provides a variety of services to mitigate these negative impacts which include treatment and disposal of waste, recycling, reusing waste products in the hopes to develop access to resources, preserve them, and replenish them. Currently operating in 35 countries globally and with 70,000 employees, the company is able to amass approximately $29 billion in revenue annually.

  5. Waste Management, Inc.: Established in 1968, Waste Management manages to top the list of the 5 biggest recycling companies in the world. Headquartered in Houston, the company operates 293 active landfill disposals, 146 recycling plants, 111 beneficial-use landfill gas projects, and six independent power production plants (that’s a lot!). With ample resources, the company can perfectly provide its services in transferring, disposing of, recycling, and collecting waste. This enables the company to generate approximately $14.48 billion annually in revenue.

One common theme we see from the companies above is the services they provide. It covers most varieties of waste, not just specializing strictly in one type of waste. We see that recycling and waste management (disposing and collecting) are very prominent. And finally, seeing these companies generating billions of dollars in revenue on a yearly basis, we can safely assume that the recycling/reuse/waste management industry is indeed a booming industry with the potential to grow even further from what it is today! As the industry grows, more businesses will be established, perhaps with novel ideas that make themselves unique. After we have looked at some of the well-established waste management companies, let’s take a look at a few interesting startups:

  1. Redwood Materials: One big name when it comes to sustainability is none other than Elon Musk. It is common knowledge that he’s the founder of Tesla, SpaceX, OpenAI, Neuralink, and The Boring Company. Approximately 4 years ago, the CTO of Tesla, JB Straubel, co-founded a company with Elon Musk and three others called “Redwood Materials” which aims to recover metals from factory scraps and other electronic wastes and turn those waste materials into usable lithium, cobalt, and graphite to make new batteries. As more car companies are pursuing EV plans, the demand for batteries will increase. This means that raw material prices such as cobalt and lithium are skyrocketing (69% and 127% respectively). The company found out that recovering old waste scraps to manufacture batteries is actually more cost-effective than conventional mining. This is cost-competitive, which will surely boost recycling in the future. It is estimated that currently, Redwood Materials are raking in approximately $20 million annually, and will only increase from now. In addition, it is predicted that in the future, the recycling market will be worth hundreds of billions of dollars annually. Currently, the company has been backed by the likes of Amazon, Breakthrough Energy Ventures, and Capricorn Investment Group, accumulating $40 million from these companies. If you want to find out more about Redwood Materials, click here!

  2. Novoloop: This is another interesting plastic recycling startup I came upon. The company is currently based in the states and aims to specialize solely in plastic recycling. Specifically, the company aims to transform packaging waste into high-performance materials used in various categories which include shoes, cars, homes, and more. The low-carbon manufacturing methods aim to reduce carbon footprints by 45%. In order to produce their goods, the company works on chemical recycling processes that break down polymer chains in plastics, which leads to various reaction combinations allowing for the harvesting of products. To find out more about the company, click here!

  3. Synthol: Used tires account for billions of tons of waste per year, which are ultimately incinerated or end up in landfills. That’s where Syntoil comes in. Currently, the rubber industry is arguably the largest market for carbon. Synthol aims to process tires and rubber waste into industrial products by recovering carbon black in the process. Recovering substances from rubber waste will not only decrease rubber waste in our environment but will also be healthier for the environment and living organisms, including humans. Currently, the company is headquartered in Poland and is financially backed by Chivas. To find out more about its initiatives, click here!

  4. Trash Lucky: A Thailand-based startup, Trash Lucky’s statement “รีไซเคิลลุ้นโชค” (recycle lucky draw), aims to persuade people into recycling plastic goods, earning them the chance to win lucky draw prizes, including goods such as gold! For every 1kg of waste recycled by the participants, they earn two raffle tickets with the chance to earn a reward of 10,000 baht (plans to increase the prizes in the future)! The company also offers sustainable cardboard boxes for participants with the cost of 155 baht each. Their goal is to limit plastic pollution that’s damaging the ocean ecosystem, thus endangering many marine animals. Currently, Thailand places sixth in the world rankings for the highest volume of plastic pollution in the ocean. The company hopes to clear Thailand’s bad name in this aspect and aims to lower the country’s rank through this business. To find out more about the company, click here!

Sources used here, here, here, here, here and here.