If you go back in history, recycling started in the 9th century when the Japanese would reuse paper to make new paper. In the U.S., it wasn’t until the 17th century that cotton and linen rags were collected and reused to print newspapers and bibles. 

Recycling was slow to catch on and didn’t really catch on until World War II when materials were in short supply, so the collection of paper, metal, and rubber kicked off as a means to help the military with the materials they needed, but it would be a couple more decades before curbside recycling started gaining traction.

The nation celebrated the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. It was another major milestone in the turn to do our part for the planet. That was 53 years ago. What’s next?

Today, it’s common for households to recycle cardboard, paper, metal, and glass. Most households and businesses also comply with drop-off battery and electronics recycling, though some people are still learning the importance of recycling these items. As the availability and ease of recycling continue to grow and improve, where is it headed? What does the future of recycling look like?

Plastics Remain a Problem

Plastic is everywhere, and it’s not being recycled at even close to the rates it’s produced and used. In 2018, plastics generation was 37.5 million tons, but only 3 million tons were recycled. That’s less than 9%. HDPE and PET were the most likely to get recycled at rates of 29.3% and 29.1%, respectively.

Where did it all go? Landfills across the U.S. received 27 million tons of it. It accounted for 18.5% of all waste entering the landfill. One of the problems is that once plastic has been used to create something, it loses some strength during the recycling process. It’s hard to get plastics back to what’s known as “virgin grade.” So, items made with recycled plastic aren’t good for reuse.

This leads to one of the future recycling processes. VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland found a way to extract 70% virgin-grade plastic and chemicals from items. The Olefy technology they’re working on could be a game changer.

It’s an especially timely development as many companies or states have started to set goals for having a percentage of recycled plastic in their packaging. In California, beverage companies must use plastic bottles containing 50% recycled materials by 2030.

Advancements in PVC Recycling

Polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which is found in so many homes’ plumbing systems, is a difficult plastic to recycle. Heating it up releases corrosive hydrochloric acid. It’s typically thrown out, but University of Michigan scientists found a way to recycle it through electrochemistry.

Get Paid to Recycle

Even with the latest advancements, some people simply find recycling to be too time-consuming, trash collection is too expensive, or recycling facilities don’t have convenient hours. Reverse vending machines are being tested to see if it improves recycling rates. You’ve probably encountered them at stores with bottle return areas if you live in a state with a bottle or can deposit.

Put your can or bottle into the machine and it scans the UPC. If it’s a valid returnable, it adds that money to your total. When you’re done, print out the coupon to get a discount in the store when you’re done shopping or ask for the cash. 

Some machines can take more than bottles. They take cans, jars, bottles, clothing, and plastic containers. If it’s an accepted recyclable, you get paid.

Durable, Water-Resistant Paper Bags

While some states have stopped the use of any plastic bags at stores, others are a little more hesitant as paper bags are not as strong. Plus, moisture greatly reduces their strength. If heavy rain soaks a paper bag as you leave a store, the items you’ve purchased could all fall through the bottom or sides and smash on the ground.

Researchers at Penn State found a way to make paper bags stronger using lye to strengthen the cellulose in the paper. They retain that strength even if they get wet. They’re strong enough to be used multiple times, and when they’re no longer useful, they can be turned into biofuel. 

Microbes That Eat Plastic

Petroleum-based plastics don’t break down easily in a landfill and burning or melting them down creates fumes that many people disagree with. The life span of some plastics is extensive with PET lasting up to 450 years, LDPE, PP, and HDPE up to 600 years, PVC up to 150 years, and PS up to 80 years. 

Researchers are finding that there are microbes that can break down plastics faster in the right conditions. Just like microbes are useful in wastewater treatment, they could be a convenient solution to plastic recycling.

Styrofoam Munching Worms

Styrofoam is one of the worst items to recycle. Some companies will take it and turn it into bricks for insulation, but it takes time and fire retardants are necessary to meet many building codes.

Scientists in Australia came across another way to recycle it. The Zophobos morio worms are believed to have an enzyme in their gut that breaks down polystyrene into a food source for them. Over three weeks, the team fed these worms different foods or the Styrofoam, and the worms that ate Styrofoam gained the most weight.

Faster Battery Recycling

As the nation shifts towards the importance of electric vehicles (EVs), it takes time to recycle those batteries, which is important to keep the raw materials from depleting. It’s estimated that over 200 new mines would be needed in the next 12 years to keep up with the demand for cobalt, lithium, and nickel. Recycling those materials is important, but it takes time. Plus, it often costs as much or even more to recycle them, which made it an unappealing venture.

Because of this, new recycling processes are being created to help make recycling cost-effective and provide as much recycled material as possible. Some of these recycling facilities work with plants that will turn the materials into usable components like copper foil and cathode active material. 

A team at Tokyo Metropolitan University uncovered a way to study lithium metal batteries without damaging them and creating a fire risk. In their studies, they believe manufacturers could use lithium metal batteries in EVs with retention rates of up to 87% after 30 cycles without risk of damage. That should also help find ways to reuse some recycled batteries.

Do As Much As You Can

What can you do right now to help out? You can keep doing your part by making sure you don’t throw things out without first seeing if they’re recyclable or compostable.

The vegetable trimmings from dinner, save them in a compost bucket, and see if a local farm or waste district takes food scraps for composting. If you have the space, start your own compost pile and use the compost you create in your gardens. 

Instead of throwing away used clothing, bring it to an H&M store for recycling. You get a coupon to use at the store, and the clothing is resold or properly recycled. Area quilters also look for used clothing in any shape to use for quilting squares. Ask and see if anyone could use worn clothing.

Recycle Nation has an easy-to-use guide to recycling. Enter your ZIP code and the item you want to recycle. You’ll learn where you can go and have the contact information you need if you have additional questions or need driving directions.