The recycling industry has seen so many changes over the decades. As early as the late-1800s, men were going from one home to the next looking for worn-out clothing. Why? Companies bought the “rags” to turn them into paper and hired men to collect those rags. This was just the beginning. Every decade, recycling advances. Where will it be 10, 20, or 30 years from now?
Advancements in the World of Recycling
During and after World War II, recycling heated up. Scrap rags, ripped nylons, paper, metal, cooking oils/fats, and rubber were collected and donated so that they could be reused. Fast forward to the 1960 and 1970s. Concerns had long moved from war efforts. Some were starting to worry about the damage to the environment. Recycling programs started popping up in major cities like NYC. By 1980, 10% of the nation’s municipal waste was being recycled.
While growth is a positive trend, only 35% of waste was being recycled by 2017. There’s still a lot of work to be done. Meanwhile, the amount of waste generated keeps going up. Per the American Chemistry Council, more than 35 million tons of plastics were generated during 2017. Much of this is single-use plastic that’s designed to be used and immediately discarded. Without recycling, all of these plastic items would end up in landfills where it takes hundreds of years for them to break down.
Recycling is changing. It has to change. Students are being challenged to come up with ways to recycle items that are hard to recycle. Scientists are working on new and effective ways to recycle. Check out these futuristic recycling ideas that could be a reality in the next 30 years.
Recycling Ideas That Are Our Future
XPRIZE is a non-profit organization dedicated to using technology to solve issues that help mankind. They do this by hosting public competitions that come up with unique ways to help humans and the environment. Some of the competitions are for school-aged children and teens. Others are for adults. Some of the best recycling ideas have come from XPRIZE competitions and other non-profit and company competitions.
#1 – Bacteria Breakdown
Bacteria can do a lot of things. In your body, bacteria help with gut health, but they can also cause an infection in a wound. A student group in Canada found a way to have bacteria digest and break down plastic mailers, packaging, and shopping bags. The bacteria turn polyethylene into CO2 and biomass fertilizers in as little as four months.
#2 – Biodegradable Food Safety Packaging
One of the neatest inventions coming out is a biodegradable food wrap from IndieBio that changes color if it becomes too warm. The color change alerts people to the risk of spoiled food within the item. You have a food wrap that won’t go to a landfill and prevents food poisoning. It’s a win-win.
How will it work? Say you purchase some chicken and get stuck in a traffic jam. You get home and aren’t sure that the refrigerated bag kept the chicken cold enough. The wrap will tell you. If the color changes, it’s bad. If it hasn’t, it’s still safe to eat. When you’re done with the packaging, it can go right into your compost pile.
#3 – Cheap, Effective Insulation
Some companies are already using recycled jeans and denim to create insulation for walls and ceilings. A group of Florida students came up with a new plan that’s even better. It’s estimated that an empty potato chip bag takes over 80 years to fully decompose. These students shredded dozens of cleaned, emptied potato chip bags and turned it into long-lasting, effective insulation. Not only did tests find the insulation was effective, but it is also much cheaper than traditional insulation products and just takes a shredder capable of cutting the bags into the right width.
#4 – Food Scrap Processing Turned Into Animal Food
China uses the larva from a specific type of fly to devour food scraps from restaurants. The larva of 2.5 pounds of black soldier fly can devour more than a pound of food waste per hour. Those larvae then become food for poultry, fish, turtles, and even adventurous humans.
#5 – Home Methane Production
What if you could turn the food scraps you’re paying to recycle or tossing into your trash into heating fuel? Can you imagine having a water heater, cooking appliance, clothes dryer, and HVAC system powered off the food scraps you can’t eat? A group of fifth and sixth graders came up with an appliance that helped break down the food scraps and capture the methane gas they produce while turning into compost.
#6 – Plastic and Rubber Roads
Some areas tested ground-up rubber tires as a substitute for asphalt. Arizona decided to do a three-year trial of rubber asphalt to see if it cut road noise. The study found that asphalt rubber reduced road noise by up to 12 decibels. Today, rubber asphalt is on roads in several states including Arizona, California, South Carolina, Texas, and Washington.
This led to the idea that ground-up plastic could also be used. In 2020, California finished paving sections of a highway near Oroville. Each mile of pavement used up more than 150,000 plastic water bottles. The original road surface was lifted by the same machine that ends up paving the road. As it lifts and grinds the old surface, it mixes it with the plastic bottle fragments. Once mixed with bitumen (sludge from oil refining), it is used to resurface the road.
Not only are plastic bottles being recycled, but the process also reuses the existing road surface. If the road surfaces last, other climates could be next for these tests. Soon, all roads in the U.S. could contain rubber or plastic asphalt.
#7 – Robotic Trash Sorting
Could you imagine having a trash can that tells you if an item is recyclable? It’s possible with a project some California middle school students completed. They came up with a Raspberry Pi robot that takes a picture of an item and determines if it’s a food scrap, recyclable item, or trash. Instead of struggling to decide if #7 plastic goes into the trash or recycling bin, the robot helps you. If you think about where this could go, it’s an amazing thought.
You could eventually have multiple bins set up inside or outside your house and simply deposit your item into a slot, let the robot decide where it goes, and have the right door open for that item to fall into.
EvoEco is already coming out with a line of smart garbage cans for commercial use known as the EvoBin. It tells you whether you need to recycle, trash, or compost an item. If you’ve put the wrong item in the wrong bin, you’ll see it on the screen and can quickly move it to the right bin. Bin-E is another smart garbage can that uses the camera system and also tells your hauler when the bin is full and needs to be picked up. Eventually, smaller bins could be in homes across the nation.
#8 – Styrofoam Water Filters
Styrofoam is one type of plastic that cannot be recycled. In most districts, instructions are to toss it into the trash. With so many small appliances and electronics coming in protective Styrofoam packaging, a lot ends up in the landfill. A team of eighth-grade students found a way to heat up Styrofoam and turn it into activated carbon. That activated carbon can be used in water filters for home water treatment systems and water pitchers.
#9 – Zero Waste Stores
Imagine shopping in a store where there is no waste. You do not get foods in packages that you cannot reuse, recycle, or compost. You shop for grains, flours, sugar, and other products in bulk. Fill up your container that you get weighed and bring it home. Fill it again when it’s empty.
When you purchase meats, you’re not buying them in Styrofoam trays and plastic wrap. Meats are in compostable paper. Items that need to be boxed come in boxes that break down easily. Instead of getting a cake mix that’s in a plastic bag within a glossy cardboard box, the cake mix comes in a compostable paper bag.
Beer and sodas are held together in rings that can be planted and turned into grass or flowers. Others are compostable and contain nutrients that won’t hurt fish or other aquatic creatures. You reuse bags made from recycled tarps, canvas, or other fabrics. Everything you buy will be compostable or reusable and not end up in landfills.
Keep doing your part. Recycle and reuse as much of your plastic, paper, wood, and cloth items as you can. If you need to dispose of items, Recycling Nation can help you find the right way to recycle everything from used tires to meat scraps. Download our recycling app to get started.