The Future of Recycling: 13 Innovative Strategies That Could Save the Earth
It's not enough to toss your cans and water bottles into the recycling bin and hope for the best. The future of recycling takes it to the next level, and then some.
Recycling has come a long way since curbside pickups. In fact, it’s getting to the point where you can recycle (almost) anything, and even more innovation is in the works. These new recycling technologies and strategies couldn’t come at a better time; just because you can recycle most things doesn’t mean everything is recycled. Here’s one eye-opening statistic: In 2019, less than five percent of plastic waste was actually recycled in the United States, in part because most recycling facilities are only equipped to handle the most common type of plastics. As a result, the vast majority of the 121 billion pounds of plastic produced in the U.S. every year heads to landfills, incinerators, or out to sea.
And it’s not just plastics that are missing out on a second life; it’s textiles, agricultural byproducts, and even water. That’s why the future of recycling is focused on finding ways to reuse everything from spent grain to hair clippings to floral arrangements to people (yes, even your body can have a sustainable afterlife).
Some of the following 13 recycling strategies are already practiced by businesses and brands you may support now, and they’re sure to become more and more accessible in the future.
Read on to learn what can be done to further stem the tide of plastic and other recyclables to the waste stream.
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Conventional curbside recycling focuses mainly on PET #1 and #2 plastics (used for water and soda bottles and milk jugs, respectively); it breaks them down into tiny pieces that are reprocessed into new items. As mentioned earlier, very little plastic is actually recycled in the U.S., for a number of reasons. For one, not all plastics, even those of the same type, can be recycled together. For example, a PET #1 soda bottle can’t be recycled along with a PET #1 clamshell (the type you might get at a salad bar). Then, even if the plastics are recycled, repurposed plastic can be reused in fewer things than new plastic, it can only be recycled three times at most, and it’s more expensive too. These technologies aim to address these issues.
Enzyme-based plastic recycling may allow for more efficient recycling
Enzyme-based recycling, also known as chemical recycling, aims to recycle more plastic types infinitely while maintaining their quality. Carbios, a French startup, is poised to commercialize a type of chemical recycling of PET #1 plastic using genetically engineered cutinase enzymes derived from microbes. According to Alain Marty, chief scientific officer at Carbios, the products from the enzymatic reaction are chemically identical to those used to make virgin PET plastic from fossil fuels and require less energy to make.
French tire company Michelin tested the resulting “high-tenacity fiber” in its tires with success. If Michelin is ultimately able to replace traditional plastic with this new version, the equivalent of nearly three billion PET bottles would be diverted from landfills annually.
All-in-one recycling machine in your kitchen for easier recycling
If you’re truly committed to recycling, Lasso, an at-home recycling machine, makes the process more foolproof than relying on your municipal recycling center. The machine, which costs $4,000 and is about the size of a dishwasher, removes labels, then grinds and crushes the recyclable into tiny pieces ready to be remanufactured like new—bottle to bottle, can to can.
Lasso accepts the seven most commonly recycled items in a compact unit that hums like your washing machine on spin cycle and consumes as much electricity as your dishwasher. These include:
- PET #1 and HDPE #2 plastics
- Clear, green, and brown glass
- Aluminum and steel
When your machine is full (around three to eight times per year), Lasso, a smart appliance, alerts you via an app on your phone that it’s time for curbside pickup and schedules one for you. Your recyclables will be picked up at home, then delivered directly to companies waiting to remake them into usable items.
According to the Lasso website, it’s set to be ready for in-home use in 2024, and the company expects the machine to be able to recycle LDPE plastic #4 (thin film), paper, cardboard, and food scraps in the future.
Plastic remade with a 3D printer for creative recycling
Imagine creating new shoes, toys, or home goods from plastic destined for the landfill. DRAM, short for distributed recycling and additive manufacturing, allows you to turn your plastic waste, such as broken flashlights or hair dryers, or packaging, into new products for just pennies with a paper/CD shredder, millions of free designs available on the Internet, and a 3D printer. Some enterprising folks have even started home-based businesses selling the objects they have created like camera tripods or adaptive toothbrushes for people with arthritis.
Professor Joshua M. Pearce of Western University in Ontario, Canada, a leader in DRAM, says virtually any plastic can be recycled today into useful products. The process is:
- Shred clean plastic waste into particles.
- Convert the particles into filament using an open source 3D printable extruder, such as the FilaFab.
- Using a free design, create something new on a 3D printer with the filament.
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As extreme drought spreads from California, parts of which are currently under water restrictions, to other western states, water recycling will help meet the growing demand for this precious resource.
Recycling greywater so not a single drop goes to waste
The average American uses about 60 gallons of water per day. There’s an effort underway to harness greywater, lightly contaminated water, from showers, washers, heat pumps, and other household sources that can be collected, disinfected, and reused for gardening, laundry, or flushing your toilet. By recycling greywater, homeowners reduce their freshwater consumption by up to 45 percent, says Fernando Ramirez, managing director at Hydraloop, one of the companies that makes and installs greywater systems.
So far, the use of these self-cleaning systems is generally limited to California, but interest is growing. Hydraloop’s system costs $4,500 (plus plumbing costs), or homeowners can attempt to DIY their greywater recycling. (Greywater Action is a good resource for those getting started.)
The major hurdle to quick installation, according to Ramirez, is “acquiring permits and developing the regulations on a statewide basis, since there is no national policy on greywater recycling.” Ramirez urges anyone interested in greywater recycling to contact their local planning boards, building permit offices, water utilities, etc., to lobby for updates to local regulations to make it easier for homeowners to use greywater systems.
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The building industry is the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases (after the U.S. and China), responsible for at least eight percent of all global carbon emissions. Concrete and the cement required to bind it play a large part in that.
Using recycled glass for a more sustainable concrete
Researchers have developed a concrete recipe that uses up to 50 percent less cement and up to 100 percent less sand with no reduction in the material’s quality. In its place is more environmentally friendly limestone powder and recycled glass, which, as an added benefit, has better insulating properties than sand. Discarded glass is plentiful: According to the EPA, more than half of all discarded glass was landfilled in 2018; the most common is soda-lime glass, the type that’s used in this type of concrete.
Pawel Sikora, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, West Pomeranian University of Technology in Szczecin, Poland, who has conducted research on the concrete, tells Reader’s Digest that when thermoplastic fillers were added to the mixture, it was discovered they further enhanced the insulating ability of this concrete. Researchers used the concrete to 3D print an updated, sustainable version of a concrete block that can be reused in a completely closed loop, meaning it can be remade infinitely. “We could crush an entire 3D printed element and re-use it as a fine recycled aggregate or another cement-based material,” Sikora explains.
Agricultural waste recycling
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A growing number of startups are working to capture agricultural sidestreams to create new food or other types of products altogether. It’s always a good idea to reduce your own food waste too.
Vegan leather from upcycled agricultural byproducts
It used to be that byproducts of food production would end up in landfills. Among the companies trying to change that is Mirium. It uses coconut husk fiber, a byproduct of producing coconut water and oil, and cork powder, a byproduct of making wine stoppers, and transforms it into a 100 percent bio-based, leather-like material.
Even better, Mirium contains no petroleum-derived ingredients and is manufactured without harsh tanning chemicals, which means it has a very low carbon footprint. Plus, it’s completely recyclable and biodegradable.
The “leather” and its sister product, Clarus, a similarly made textile, are now commercially available and have been used by major companies from Ralph Lauren to BMW in everything from fashion accessories and footwear to electronics and automotive products.
New food products from spent grain
When they started home-brewing their own beers, Dan Kurzrock and Jordan Schwartz realized that for every six-pack of beer, one pound of “spent” grain (aka malt) was left behind after the sugars were removed during brewing. The duo figured out that the protein, fiber, and other nutrients were fit for human consumption, so they developed ReGrained, a line of foods including bars, puffs, pasta, and baking mixes.
According to its website, “every pound of ReGrained SuperGrain+ prevents the carbon dioxide equivalent of burning one pound of coal and saves over 300 gallons of water.” So far, ReGrained has upcycled more than 659,000 pounds of spent grain.
The brand recently expanded into plant-based dairy sidestreams and pledges to upcycle more than 10 million pounds of spent grain by 2025.
Recycling renewable energy sources
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Solar energy is booming, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association, as it becomes more affordable. It’s currently the “cheapest…electricity in history,” according to the International Energy Agency, but unfortunately it has a hidden expense.
Solar energy panel recycling
Even when you think you’re doing something good for the environment, like installing solar energy panels, there’s often a hidden cost. With solar panels, it’s that the panels themselves have around a 25-year lifespan; only 10 percent of solar panels are currently recycled in the U.S., and typically only the glass components and metal frames are recycled.
Companies have been looking at ways to make it more affordable to recycle panels as a whole. Solarcycle, for one, has figured out a way to extract up to 95 percent of minerals in solar panels, including silicon, silver, copper, and aluminum that can be used to build new solar cells.
Other types of recycling
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As the world works toward a more sustainable future, it’s not just traditional items that will need to be recycled, but also unexpected items, sometimes in surprising ways.
Human composting replaces traditional burial methods
After a person dies, there is a significant amount of hazardous medical waste generated from both traditional burial and cremation, which emits fossil fuels and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. In addition, there are energy-intensive processes involved in manufacturing caskets, headstones, and grave liners as well as some of the supplies that go along with cremation.
With natural organic reduction (NOR), also called human composting, “microbes, oxygen, and plant matter combine to gently convert human remains into soil,” according to the Recompose website. In the two- to four-month process, a human body is transformed into a cubic yard of nutrient-enriched soil that can then be used to “restore forests, sequester carbon, and nourish new life.” For each body processed, NOR reduces carbon dioxide emissions by one ton; the process as a whole consumes one-eighth the energy of traditional methods.
Hair trimmings transform into insulation and more
Would you believe that salons in North America generate 877 pounds of waste—including hair clippings, foil, and shampoo bottles—every minute? Through its 4,500 member salons in the U.S. and Canada, Green Circle Salons reclaims and repurposes one million pounds of that waste every year.
Along with more than 40 partners, which include recycling or chemical waste facilities and clean-energy producers, Green Circle ensures that up to 95 percent of a salon’s beauty waste is handled sustainably.
Most interesting, hair clippings have been used to soak up oil spills, including the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. But that’s not all your old hair can do. “Our main focus now is on creating regenerative solutions for hair, turning it into insulation, biostimulant, and biocomposite,” explains Will Thompson, head of corporate accounts at Green Circle Salons.
Discarded hotel soap gets a second chance
Partially used tiny soap bars from hotels are no longer destined for the landfill, thanks to the nonprofit Clean the World. The group collects the bars and then reforms them into new hygienic soap bars that are shipped to 127 needy countries around the world. So far, 70 million bars have been distributed.
In addition, Clean the World collects hotels’ single-use plastic shampoo, body wash, and lotion bottles; all the plastic is either recycled or converted into energy.
More than 8,000 hotels, or about 20 percent of all U.S. hotels, including some Hyatts, Marriotts, and Hiltons, participate for a small monthly fee. Since 2009, Clean the World has diverted 22 million pounds of waste from landfills.
Battery and lightbulb collection at your home
Launched in 2018, Ridwell began as a father-son quest to responsibly recycle dead batteries. It’s since grown to include items that are tough to find a new life for, such as plastic film, Styrofoam, and light bulbs. Seasonally, Ridwell will also collect gently used clothes, shoes, bikes, and back-to-school gear and find local places, such as specialty recyclers or community support groups, that will recycle or reuse the item.
Ridwell currently offers service in the Seattle-Portland area, Denver, Minneapolis, and Austin and charges a $12 a month subscription for regular home pickups.
According to Ridwell co-founder Aliya Marder, Ridwell has diverted six million pounds of waste from landfills so far.
Flower arrangements live to see another day
To understand just how large the carbon footprint of the bouquet is, consider that flowers grown in Colombia and flown to the U.S. for Valentine’s Day 2018 generated 360,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide; to put that into context, that’s roughly the same carbon emissions that nearly 78,000 gasoline-powered passenger vehicles make in a year! That number doesn’t include the carbon emissions created from 24/7 refrigeration and local transport from the florist to your door or the emissions from the production of pesticides and fertilizer used to grow those beautiful blooms.
Rebloom has found a creative way to reduce that environmental toll: They sell next-day floral arrangements often from corporate events and weddings at a 70 to 90 percent discount.
Currently operating in New York, Boston, and Los Angeles, the company handles all the logistics, including posting photos on its website, picking up flowers after an event, refrigerating them overnight, then delivering them the next day to the purchaser’s event. Proceeds often go to a charity selected by the original donor.
- Science Direct: “Quantification and evaluation of plastic waste in the United States”
- Statista: “U.S. plastics industry – statistics & facts”
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: “National Overview: Facts and Figures on Materials, Wastes and Recycling”
- Solar Energy Industries Association: “Solar Industry Research Data”
- The Washington Post: “In Rose Beds, Money Blooms”