Recycling is a lie (ep. 2)
As ecology awareness raises, a new moto is growing: recycling the products we are consuming will save the planet. All western countries have installed recycle containers. We are all incited to recycle our goods: phones, cars, batteries… But are we addressing this issue the right way? How 2000 years of knowledge could help us getting out from the resource consumption trap we set to ourselves?
Did you figure out what happens to the products you put in the recycle bin?
Most western countries have set up a recycling pathway starting from individuals, with a strong focus on packaging. Some materials are very easy to recycle. Recycling aluminum or glass is very efficient to save save row material. in addition to that, recycling Aluminium saves 80% of consummed energy vs producing new aluminum so increasing the collection ratio is key to reduce energy consumption and mining impact. (note that recycling glass allows to save sand and soda ash but its energy saving is not very good: it saves only 20% of the energy vd producing glass from raw material).
Plastic recycling is a different story. Plastics are manufactured from a dozen of different polymers, to which are added chemical substances to adapt the plastic capabilities (plasticizers, solvents, antioxidants, dyes, flame retardants, etc.). This leads to 100s of different plastic materials, complexifying the recycling process that requires to separate packaging according to their compositions.
But Entropy teaches us that it is very hard to revert when we are mixing things together. subtracting the different additive is quite impossible and, often, the only output of this mixtures of polymers contaminated by various additives is low end plastics. One of the most iconic applications of plastic bottle recycling is polar fabric production. But what will we do of all the remaining plastic bottles when the entire world population will be dressed with polar jacket?
Are larger products easier to recycle?
Cars are also a very interesting example. After 15 to 25 years of good service, there is still plenty of good material to extract out of your car starting from steel.
But unfortunately, Car-recycled steel will not be reused as car-grade steel. Most of the time, it will finish in concrete steel bars, because car-grade steel requires very precise specifications that are gained with additives. Once again, we mix different elements that are very hard to separate. And a car manufacturer will favor steel manufactured from freshly mined iron.
So long for the circular economy. It’s a one-way ticket to the concrete.
Digital products are getting cleaner
Starting in the early years of 21st century, press articles were reporting a growing problem: Western countries were sending their old PCs and electronic products in China. Small workshops were set up to melt the different metallic components out of PCBs and collect them. The process is highly toxic for the operators and for the environment. But China let it go until in 2018, when the government decided to ban such activity. And the activity was transferred to South East Asia, mainly Thailand, and continues to pollute the region.
With an estimated 6Bn mobile phones across the world, the topic has evolved but remains critical. In many countries, telecom operators and smartphone manufacturers are inciting us to recycle or old phones (in exchange of a brand-new product). But how efficient is this recycling process?
One fact: 15% of phones are recycled (much lower than the 35% average for electronic goods). We are told that “we should do more efforts as a large share of the non-recycled phones are collecting dust in a drawer and this is a bad thing”. Well, let see what happens to a “recycled phone”:
Smartphones are manufactured from many components. 50% are easily separated (plastic and glass). The remaining consist in a mix of 70 different elements: copper, lithium graphite and other chemical products, Iron, precious metals, rare earth metals…
Again, “Entropy will always increase” … which means that it will be very hard (and energy consuming) to separate what has been mixed in electronic devices. This leads to low efficiency ratio at high costs.
I guess that a product sleeping in a drawer is a bad option because it is raw material that is useless (still probably better than throwing it away). But recycling this product doesn’t look like a good option too, as it requires a lot of energy and wastes material except for few materials.
A better solution is reusing (or using longer), repairing, refurbishing as most of the energy to produce the product is kept intact — since we don’t need to remanufacture it (you might want to read episode 1 for more details on energy included in products) — and we don’t lose any valuable elements in the recycling process.
So what shall we do?
Thermodynamics suggest that the less processing steps there are, the better. Science demonstrates that refurbishing a good is much more interesting that recycling.
The more we produce and recycle products, the quicker we transform any material into a kind of Rare Earth Element. This name is a misnomer as Rare Earth Elements are fairly common in the Earth crust. But the problem is that they don’t occur in particularly concentrated amounts in the crust. Their extraction is costly, labor intensive and is devastating for the environment.
Every time we recycle goods, a large share of these finishes broken into pieces, eroded, burned, oxidized. Those elements will transform in small particles and dust that spread around… low concentration across the Earth or on the Ocean floor.
PS. There is some hope on several topics: according to Persistence Market Research (from 2022), only 11 percent of smartphones sold worldwide are reconditioned models but this ratio is expected to grow of 10% p.a. until 2027.
“… is a lie” is a series of scientifically rooted provocative thoughts on our civilisation.
1st episod is
Energy production is a lie (ep.1)
Scientifically-rooted provocative thoughts on our world.
It will be followed by
- Electric car revolution is a lie
- economic growth is a lie
If you want to read more on this, here is a selection of articles on which I buit this paper:
The Recycling Rates of Smartphone Metals
For some of the elements highlighted here, there are obvious benefits to salvaging them and using them again, rather…
Progress on recycling smartphones, but more to do
Smartphone manufacturers have promised to do better when it comes to recycling and reconditioning their product…
Cell Phone Recycling
Cell phone history Not long ago, cell phones were a rare commodity, used mainly by business people, government…
IFPEN | Everything you need to know about plastic recycling
Plastic is an integral part of our daily lives and consumption habits and continues to be produced in massive…