OPINION: ‘From Stone Age tools to modern innovation’ – letsrecycle.com

OPINION: The waste management and recycling industries are at a critical juncture. The continued use of equipment that crushes, shreds, or mills plastic items poses significant dangers to our environment and health. It’s time to stop considering these methods as acceptable. Existing equipment that contributes to microplastic pollution must be decommissioned and replaced with advanced depackagers and separators specifically designed to avoid producing microplastics.

Historical evolution of the crushing and milling technology used by the waste management industry

The evolution of crushing and milling technology spans thousands of years, reflecting humanity’s need to process materials. These methods have served us well, from ancient hammers and grinding stones to the sophisticated crushers of the Industrial Revolution. However, in today’s context of ever-present and rising plastic, they are increasingly obsolete.

Early innovations

Historically, the need for material processing drove innovation. Early tools like hammers and grinding stones were succeeded by water wheels and windmills, which in turn gave way to the mechanical crushers of the Industrial Revolution. These innovations were crucial for handling larger volumes and harder materials, but they also marked the beginning of our reliance on size-reduction techniques. They were developed before plastic had been invented.

The rise of recycling and modernisation

The 20th and 21st centuries have seen the rise of recycling, and the concept of the circular economy, motivated initially by a shortage of landfill capacity. As society moves into the second quarter of this century, the need for re-use materials, especially better plastic recycling, is an added driver. And yet, the waste industry is still using equipment designed for quarrying that was adapted for waste processing, leading to the widespread use of crushers and mills. These methods made sense in an era with less plastic and food waste. However, the environmental landscape has changed dramatically.

Growing awareness of microplastic dangers

The awareness of microplastics’ dangers has grown. We now know that plastic, being largely indestructible, breaks down into microplastics that persist in the environment. These particles are found everywhere – from the ocean to human blood – and pose serious health risks, including potential cancer and reduced fertility. The alarming reality was brought to global attention by the BBC’s Blue Planet II in 2017, showcasing the tragic consequences of plastic pollution on marine life.

The need for new technology

Given these concerns, the continued use of equipment that produces microplastics is no longer defensible. Modern innovations like the Drycake Twister depackager offer a solution. These machines are designed to separate organic materials from waste cleanly, preserving plastic items intact and enabling efficient recycling. This technology minimizes the production of microplastics, addressing a crucial environmental and ethical concern.

Challenges in transition

Admittedly, transitioning to new equipment involves challenges. Decommissioning working machinery, investing in new models, and navigating the logistical hurdles of installation and commissioning are daunting tasks. Moreover, the financial implications – such as taking an accounting penalty for early write-offs – cannot be ignored. However, the long-term benefits far outweigh these difficulties.

The scientific community is catching on to the extent that microplastic particle counts are raised when waste is processed in MRFs and ERFs, and the public is voting in our supermarkets each time they opt to buy plastic-free products while they shop.

Time is running out for the waste industry to demonstrate that all forms of plastic waste can and will be recycled, and if it fails the use of inferior materials, especially for food products; packaging leading to lower hygiene and shorter shelf life, will prevail.

Economic viability and ROI

New depackaging and separation technologies do come with a silver lining, because they can also bring both income and disposal cost savings. In this way, they may offer a remarkably short return on investment (ROI). The ability to recycle valuable plastic resins and reduce the cost of disposing of non-recyclable waste can make this transition economically viable. Furthermore, reducing landfills and incineration of organics contaminated waste aligns with the waste hierarchy and global sustainability goals.

Ethical imperative for change

The waste management and recycling industries must embrace this ethical imperative. Continuing to use outdated, microplastic-producing equipment is irresponsible. It’s time for all responsible bodies to embark on a replacement program, decommissioning old machinery and adopting the new generation of depackagers and separators. This shift will not only reduce our environmental footprint but also protect human health and pave the way for a more sustainable future.

In conclusion, the evolution of crushing and milling technology has served us well in the past, but the future demands a different approach. We must move beyond traditional size reduction methods and adopt innovations that minimise microplastic production. The environmental and health risks are too great to ignore, and the transition to advanced depackaging technology is both a practical, economical and ethical necessity.