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More than 220 million tons of plastic are generated annually. And 31kg of plastic debris is created on average by the EU regular citizen. China, the UK, EU, and the UAE implement a plethora of approaches to decrease levels of global contamination from setting ban to waste imports, establishing WET plants, and engaging AI and robotics in waste management systems. What is the future of recycling?
Blaming the grocery
By 2015, 80% upsurge in plastic will cause dramatic contamination of the Pacific Ocean. This poses threat to marine life and raises questions about the effectiveness of existing waste management infrastructure. According to The Guardian, supermarkets are the major sources of plastic waste on land – in the UK, 800,000 tons of plastic waste per annum comes from them. Theresa May, Prime Minister of the UK, expressed concerns about the eco-problem and called for supermarkets to take action to diminish plastic debris within 25 years. Asda and Ireland, retail chains in the UK, have already attempted to stop utilizing plastic for packaging of its own brands. Also, Danone and Nestle, industry competitors, do not stay behind and are now working on the development of a “green” bottle made of recycled materials. Globally, around 40% of brands are working on making their packaging more sustainable.
The Netherlands took the idea further and opened the plastic-free aisle in the supermarket. Now, Amsterdam shoppers have a range of 700 plastic-free products to choose from. Establishing such aisles is a new sustainable and “innovative way of testing the compostable biomaterials”, claims Erik Does, Ekoplaza chief executive. With the plastic-free initiative, customers have a choice and will most likely pick sustainability rather than global plastic contamination. Thus, Finnish supermarkets express concerns regarding this strategy and claim that plastic recycling will be more realistic in this case. The world is far from stopping using plastic completely, but plastic free-aisle and recycling make plastic food and drink packaging soon to be the vestiges of the past.
Banning waste imports for
new recycling infrastructure
In the recent past, exporting garbage to China was one of the major waste reduction tactics for EU and the USA. Around 1,500 containers of garbage were delivered daily. This waste export gave a kick-off to the Chinese recycling business. Nevertheless, China’s shift towards service industry and environmental concerns required the government to modify existing business strategy and ban foreign garbage imports. According to WTO, China plans to forbid 24 garbage types from entering the country including plastic in the upcoming future.
This change in China’s actions requires the EU and US reconsider their sustainability strategies and give priority to well-developed recycling infrastructure. More than €5.5 billion in total is expected to be allocated to the development waste management system to improve recycling capacity in the EU. With no possibility to export waste, the EU is forced to develop circular plastics economy – the plastic used, recycled, and reused within its borders. By 2025, 10 million tonnes of recycled plastic is projected to be utilized for internal purposes. Jyrki Katainen, European Commission Vice President, sees circular plastics economy as the future and “a win-win” for the EU, ecology, and consumers.
Robots Take Over the Lead
In the US, increasing garbage volumes also require rethinking recycling efficiency in highly polluted metropolises like San Francisco and Los Angeles. But, garbage collection remains one of the hazardous tasks and appeared in the top ten causes of death in 2010 in the US. Back in 2012, Sadako, Barcelona-based company, saw this issue as an opportunity and introduced smart AI-powered machines to sort waste. Companies like Zen Robotics and AMP Robotics also offer their robots to make waste-sorting sophisticated, fast, and hands-free. Using robots becomes a life-saver in the waste-management industry – they make industry secure, automated, highly efficient and attractive to potential job-seekers. Now, smart machinery is exploited in the USA and UK, and sorting robotics market is projected to attain $12.24 billion by 2024 growing globally alongside an upsurge in population and produced garbage.
Waste as a new coal
Transforming waste into heat or energy is another way of overcoming “plastic disaster”. Waste-to-energy (WET) factories are multiplying across the world in geometrical progression. They transform waste into electricity by burning garbage under regulated conditions to ignite a power turbine. By 2020, Dubai plans to establish the world’s biggest WET factory. The plant is expected to take up to 2-hectares and become a competitor of the Chinese Shenzhen East WET plant, currently the largest factory of this type globally. Thus, with AI, Dubai will be able to embed decentralized WET systems locally into buildings and become a global leader in energy production capacity. Dubai’s government prioritizes WET in its sustainability strategy and by 2030, no waste is expected to be in landfills.
Transforming energy into either waste or fuel becomes a widespread phenomenon. In 2018, Australia opened the first plant to transform garbage into fuel. Waste becomes a substitute for coal resulting in lower CO2 emissions and less debris in the landfill. With positive dynamics and rising demands in renewable energy, the future is behind WET technologies. The WET market is expected to expand internationally with a 5.9% growth rate reaching $37.64 billion by 2020.