We’re filling our landfills and our oceans with trash. Why? Because we haven’t made a commitment to turning waste into resources. The COVID-19 pandemic has only made a serious problem even worse. Fortunately, some companies have developed new recycling technologies.
This post will examine two companies. One is directly dealing with medical waste related to the coronavirus outbreak. The world needs for these companies not only to succeed but to make sure their technologies become available worldwide.
Basically, companies have two ways to achieve worldwide reach. One is to become a giant corporation such as Tesla. The other is to license the technology so that companies in other geographic locations can use it.
Thermal Compaction Group
Healthcare workers need personal protective equipment (PPE) to deal with COVID-19. In practice, they use disposables.
That’s billions and billions of disposable polypropylene plastic masks in less than a year, not to mention other PPE.
Masks used in health care facilities won’t join too many of the masks the rest of us use in the ocean. Hospitals incinerate medical waste. So instead of contributing to ocean pollution, it contributes to air pollution. The situation cries out for innovative recycling technologies.
A Welsh company called Thermal Compaction Group (TCG) has devised one called Sterimelt. Seven British hospitals use it. It heats the PPE to 350ºC (662º) and compresses it into nearly sterile blocks.
Ground into pellets, these blocks can be used to make all kinds of new products. Every 10,000 kilograms of processed PPE keeps 7,500 kilograms of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.
Although it isn’t happening now, TCG and its hospital clients look forward to a time when hospitals can compact their PPE and turn the waste into resources. In this case, they would grind their blocks into pellets and use 3D printers on site to make new PPE and other equipment for themselves.
TCG has existed since 2003. Its work in the pandemic has made it much better known than before. Now it has reason to hope that British health services will make more extensive use of Sterimelt. What’s more, numerous countries have inquired about TCG’s equipment. The company recently made its first export of Sterimelt to the Netherlands.
The US Navy has also contracted with TCG to use a similar thermal compactor called Massmelt. Naval vessels used to dump plastic waste into the ocean. New regulations strictly limit what ships can simply jettison. TCG hopes to license its recycling technologies to American manufacturers.
Coffee is the most popular drink all over the world. As population grows, so does coffee consumption––and the amount of used coffee grounds.
Some people compost their coffee grounds. Most people in the developed world probably just put them into the trash, and therefore a landfill or incinerator.
German product designer Julian Lechner had another idea. Would it be possible to make something durable and useful, turning this waste into a resource for new products?
Lots of people might wonder what use lots of waste products might have. Lechner went beyond wondering. He spent three years experimenting with new recycling technologies. After that effort, his work resulted in a material he called Kaffeeform. (Kaffee is German for coffee.)
Kaffeeform is entirely plant based, made of used coffee grounds, other wastes, and biopolymers. You might know that plastics are polymers, but so are starches, cellulose, and other materials that make up plants. Kaffeeform uses such biopolymers to harden the used coffee grounds. Therefore, Kaffeeform has no need of melamine-formaldehyde resin, plasticizers, or BPA to turn the waste into a resource.
It is lightweight yet durable enough not to break when dropped from a height of five feet. The company recommends washing printed cups by hand. Otherwise, the material is dishwasher-safe.
The Kaffeeform company sends bicycle couriers to coffee shops around Berlin and collects the grounds for a social workshop. After drying and preserving them, the workshop sends them to various small plants, which make the material and form it into various shapes of coffee cups. The social workshop receives back the cups, gives them a final polish, and sells them.
I certainly hope the company will license its technology so that other companies can use it all over the world. It evidently has no intention of becoming a giant company itself.
Other innovative recycling technologies
Earlier, I have written about Knowaste and TerraCycle. Knowaste actually recycles dirty diapers. TerraCycle turns more different wastes into resources, including cigarette butts. Also, scientists at North Carolina A&T University have discovered many uses for coal ash over many years.
The main trouble with these and many other innovative recycling technologies is that hardly anyone uses them. In fact, hardly anyone even knows about them. There are numerous reasons why innovative companies don’t grow, including the problem of getting sufficient capital.
The coal ash situation is a bit different. A regional university may demonstrate many ways of turning problems to solutions. But it has no means to spin off commercial companies to take advantage of its faculty’s research.
A massive coal ash spill happened at a Duke Energy plant less than a hundred miles from the A&T campus. And no one from the company knew anything about the university’s long record of research into uses for coal ash.
Unless TCG’s recycling technology becomes widespread, PPE will continue to go up in smoke. Unless Kaffeform’s recycling technology becomes widespread, coffee grounds will continue to take up landfill space. Along with all the dirty diapers and cigarette butts that could be recycled.
Now that we have recycling technologies to turn unexpected wastes into resources, how can we take full advantage?
Covid-19 plastic waste: U.K. hospitals are recycling disposable PPE / Katherine Hignett, Forbes. January 18, 2021
The Kaffeeform story: turning used coffee grounds into a cup / Kaffeeform
Science and creativity can turn problems into solutions / Teresa Martin, Cape Cod Times. January 18, 2021