How Real Recycling Fits With a Real Hydrogen Economy

(This is a guest blog post provided by Alan Smith who is one of the speakers at the New Energy World Symposium).

Part 1 — The Problems

By Martin Moore, Alan Smith, Peter Hayes.
January 2018.

The many benefits of recycling, as well as those of the ‘hydrogen economy’, both hypothetical and real, have been touted for decades, but there is evidence that both remain elusive. Public interest and political pressure to recycle because ‘it’s a good thing’ has been subverted to performance art, the quest for profits, and good industry PR.

Collection rates are not recycling rates, any more than tree-planting makes a real forest. One of the most visible signs of the gap that exists between claims about recycling and reality are tyre dumps. According to official figures Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovakia, Sweden and Norway, all claim 100% diversion of tyres from landfill in 2006. The great majority of these tyres are actually incinerated in power stations and cement works. A lot of the rest are exported to places where there are no rules about driving on old tyres. According to an industry ‘insider’ report by Brown of Watson Brown HSM Ltd the total amount of tyre rubber actually recycled at its end-of-life globally is typically 3−15% overall and the amount of waste rubber sent to landfill or stockpiled is 20−30%.

It was the realisation that such ‘fake news’ about recycling exists throughout the recycling industry that led us to investigate the recycling of beverage cans since we were developing a process for up-cycling scrap aluminium. Aluminium cans are one of our chosen raw materials because they are not easy to re-smelt into high-grade aluminum. The industry claims that better than 50% of aluminum cans are recycled but the real figures are startling. 50% may be collected, some countries do better, but it is certain that even in ‘best practice’ countries at least 40% of all aluminum cans end up in regulated or unregulated landfills, and most of the rest end up in long-term storage and may be exported or dumped at some later date.

Collecting is not recycling!

Simple arithmetic and a little data-checking show that of any 1MT of cans, 500 kilotons (kt) ends up in landfills. (Source: The Container Recycling Institute). Of the remaining 500kt, around 300kt are crushed and stockpiled, another 50 -100kt is landfilled ‘somewhere’. Real recycling figures show that just 15% of all cans get re-smelted. Accurate figures are impossible to obtain, since stockpiles are dispersed globally and held by hundreds of different companies but enquiries as to stock levels show that the global stockpile of crushed cans is somewhere between 3 and 5 MT, and growing by 250 kt+ every year, while stockholders wait for a ‘super-boom’ in aluminum prices that has been elusive for a decade. The recycling story is just that, a story. It seems the system is broken and has been a myth from the very beginning.

Buried—Stored—Why are real can recycling rates so low?

This is not an attack on the recycling industry itself, there are many serious and dedicated environmentalists working in the field, but the whole business is way over its head with mountains of hard to process used aluminium cans, they are drowning in them. Politicians pay recycling ample lip-service but fail to legislate for or fund real recycling programs despite public pressure to do so. The packaging industry itself cherry-picks statistics to make things look better than they really are. New routes for recycling cans (and foil, and wire) like the one we will describe do have the potential to make things better.

The comments below provide insight into part of the problem. ‘It’s the Economy!’

A despairing comment: “….. over 2,000 US cities are currently paying companies to take the recycled goods to landfills, as there is a shrinking demand for them. When will they finally see that it was never really worth it? When will this charade end?“

A disgraceful comment: “People who recycle should be ashamed of themselves for acting like scavengers when so much is possible to them under capitalism.” (Richard Salsman)

See: http://thefederalist.com/2015/06/25/recycling-waste-of-time/

Expert comments: Clemson professor Daniel K. Benjamin claims Los Angeles has 800 collection trucks instead of the previous 400, due to pressure to recycle. Radley Balko at George Mason University wrote. “This means extra wear and tear on city streets, doubles the exhaust emissions into the atmosphere, doubles the man-hours required for someone to drive and man those trucks, and doubles the costs of maintenance and upkeep of the trucks.”

Franklin Associates, which provides consulting services for solid waste management, estimates that collecting and recycling is 55 percent more expensive, pound for pound, than conventional garbage disposal. And so the sad tale goes on.

While we cannot solve all of these problems, our process creates new recycling pathways for the billions of used beverage cans that currently almost nobody wants. A can transformed by our process is a can that isn’t rotting in the ground. It is a can that reduces pollution and CO2 emissions caused by bauxite ore strip-mining and the Bayer ore-treatment process. It’s a can that will provide zero-emission energy to minimise fossil-fuel use in all sectors and as end product high-grade aluminum oxide, something many industries—including the aluminium industry—need and pay a premium for.

Part 2 — How it all works (to follow).

Listen to Alan Smith at the New Energy World Symposium. Register here—Early Bird discount until February 17, 2018.

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