• Gary Robinson

Synaptic Connections Newsletter 2019 Week#34

August 19, 2019 www.Synapticpackaging.com Image - Vintage Photo, Summer Fishing (Unkown Location)

Week#34 of 2019

Good morning, and I hope this note finds you well!  We’ve been receiving a lot of encouraging feedback on this series of ReThink Waste.  Thank you for the positive comments and questions.  Please keep in mind that we are open to collaborating with guest authors.  If you have a compelling point or insight on a topic, then let’s discuss.

Today, we are going to explore the topic of down-cycling.  The term down-cycling in this context will be explored from the point of view of the raw material quality.  Down-cycling is a degenerative form of recycling.  Basically, you collect raw materials as you would in the recycle stream, however, the collected stream is of a deficient quality or sort to be returned back to the native product.  As such, the material stream is moved to a lower technical threshold and is available for consideration in alternative, less demanding applications.  As material is down-cycled, the economics follow and the material is typically discounted accordingly.

As an example - In paper fibers, down-cycling is common, accepted, economically viable, and broadly used.  Virgin material is used to create solutions that benefit by the highest of quality in strength, purity, and print.  These applications typically benefit greatly by the fiber length.  After the initial use, the fiber is recycled.  Recycled fibers have a shorter length and tend to be weaker than virgin fibers.  The recycled fibers are often blended with virgin material to recycle back into top tier commercial products, or they are down-cycled, perhaps to a brown corrugated box.  This down-cycle progressively continues until the fibers are so diminished they become fillers.  

As an important side-note, we see a lot of brands making claims for increased use of recycled fibers.   This is fantastic and highly encouraged, however, it is important to note that due to the degenerative nature of fiber recycling, there will always be a need for fresh supply of virgin material.  Also, it is important to keep in mind that as recycled fiber content is increased, it typically requires more recycled fiber to achieve a comparable performance specification.  This can be a divergent attribute when weight reductions are desired.

As another example - virgin plastics, in a clean environment, are not as subjective to cyclical degradation of quality like natural fibers.  Clean plastics can be recycled many times and preserve comparable high-quality performance.  Plastics, however, are highly susceptible to degradation of quality due to mixed material contamination.  The ability to remove these contaminates directly translates to the grade-value of the recycled plastic material.  The cleanest of plastics are eligible to go back into high-valued consumer products.

The down-cycling of plastics is a near-term opportunity for innovation in local, regional markets.  This is especially important in the wake of global policies such as The China National Sword, and the Basel Agreements that restrict trade of this material.  The idea of down-cycling plastic is a rather pragmatic acceptance of the fact that the closed-loop model for plastic recycling is only being realized in limited scope.  The emerging sorting and recycling technologies we have been discussing in Synaptic Connections are needed before the closed-loop vision can be broadly realized.  Until then, there will continue to be a vast market supply of these down-cycled plastics.  In the theme of ReThink Waste, some good examples for down-cycled plastics include plastic decking materials, plastic bricks, or even plastic filler in roads (Examples: USA, India).

The chasing arrows, closed-loop vision is not an accurate portrayal of post-consumer plastic recycling today; except in a small percentage of the materials produced.  A more accurate representation would be a down-ward helix.  The acceptance of this perspective by engineers and supply chain managers will help us to move forward with pragmatic strategies to solve today’s challenges and ReThink Waste.  We are optimistic that emerging innovations can improve the quality of recycled plastics to make them more suitable for consumer products and help realize the closed-loop vision.  We encourage all of our readers to use their influence to lead this change - and we are here to help.  Have a great week!

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