Preventing the climate burden of recycled materials
Material recycling is essential for the green transition. While technological development results in new advancements, there are many options to consider regarding recycling – and not all are climate positive.
– “Transporting materials in recycling processes is not necessarily sustainable, since it also consumes energy,” says Hanna de la Motte, Head of the Materials Transition business and innovation area at RISE.
Recycling is an important factor in achieving climate goals, but even more important is how it is carried out. To maximise climate benefits, material recycling must occur at the right time in a product’s life cycle.
– “Recycling should be done when there is no possibility to keep the material alive and it can no longer serve its purpose,” says de la Motte. As an example, she mentions a wind turbine: “It contains a multitude of components that can be used in other applications. Only once the materials have been used for as long as possible in their original and other functions, should they be recycled into new materials.”
A need for the material must exist
When recycling materials, a need must exist in the market for the recycled material, otherwise something that should benefit the environment becomes a burden.
– “You cannot recycle and create new products that do not fulfil a need, otherwise you are just adding new products to the market,” says de la Motte. “The product must replace a fossil fuel-derived plastic or something that is currently made of virgin goods to a significant extent.”
Notwithstanding the importance of material recycling, a greater environmental benefit can be achieved at the other end. By using the right type of material for the right product, the service life of the products on the market is prolonged, and this also entails a major transition for many companies.
– “This is what we call circular transition,” explains de la Motte. “For this, digitalisation is often crucial, along with changing business models where you go from selling a product to, for instance, selling services.”
Design important for recycling
Product design is also an important aspect of recycling work. de la Motte would like to see more industries subject to the producer responsibility applicable to packaging and electronics, for example, where producers are required to ‘take back’ their products after use:
– “I hope that requirements of this nature will be enforced. That during production you think of all the essential steps to achieve a circular economy.”
She also emphasises that recycling will not be a climate saviour, since several factors must be taken into account:
– “Recycling does not solve everything; it is just part of the puzzle between good production and the right quality.”
Recycling does not solve everything; it is just part of the puzzle between good production and the right quality
Lack of recycling infrastructure
Efficient recycling is also contingent on infrastructure with established flows and trading venues for recycled material, something that is largely lacking today. de la Motte considers this one of the major challenges, along with the need for flow analyses and socio-economic calculations on what is most resource efficient in connection with recycling:
– “Where do the materials go and where is the need? A lot needs to be done, after which you must determine what makes sense to do.”
At the same time, technology is continuously advancing, and what may not have been possible to recycle yesterday may be today. One example is the development of chemical recycling, where textiles or plastics are broken down into their original molecules, which can then be used to build up a material of the same quality or another product of the same quality.
The process often consumes more energy than mechanical recycling, where a product is pulverised into granules, which are then melted and reused.
– “Mechanical recycling usually results in a product of poorer quality and less value than the original product,” explains de la Motte.
But she considers the methods to be complementary:
– “You can’t say that one is better than the other – you need to use a suite of different methods.”
Incineration as a last resort
Sending materials to be incinerated should only be done when a product or material can no longer be kept alive or recycled into new products. Only then may thermochemical recycling, such as pyrolysis or gasification, be relevant.
– “It can also be too expensive or too difficult to recycle chemically,” says de la Motte. “Furthermore, some products are highly contaminated, which means the material can contain harmful substances.”
RISE works extensively on recycling and the circular economy and is an expert on questions about which materials are suitable for specific products and how to ensure that recycled material to be used in production fulfils quality requirements.
RISE also operates several test beds for the mechanical recycling of materials such as textiles and plastics. Chemical recycling is also researched, but the field is relatively new and opportunities for upscaling are limited, despite the fact that RISE follows and works closely with future industrial processes.
RISE can also assist companies seeking to transition in some way.
– “We work with sustainable transition for production as well as for business models,” says Hanna de la Motte.