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The international environmental technology industry is continuously creating new, often astounding ways to recycle and find secondary uses for a wide variety of materials. Read the latest examples of office paper, ghost nets, wood, solar cells, bicycle tires, biowaste and plastics previously difficult to recycle.

PaperLab from global technology company Epson is a machine that produces new sheets from printed wastepaper directly where it is generated, for example in the office. In a dry process—that also securely destroys confidential documents—the input material is defibered, bound, pressed, and cut into clean DIN A4 or DIN A3 sheets. The machine, which is just under three meters wide and two meters high, can produce up to 720 DIN A4 sheets per hour. One of the current users is the Italian luxury fashion brand Brunello Cucinelli.

Starting in June 2022, the technology group Schneider Electric is expected to offer “Merten Ocean Plastic,” a series of switches and socket outlets half of which are made of recycled ghost nets from the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. The abandoned fishing nets drifting in the sea are crushed, cleaned, and extruded. The result: a raw material that contains 15 percent glass fiber and scores with a low carbon footprint. According to the company, when combined with another 50 percent recycled plastic from industry, it can be used to produce particularly durable and resistant switches and sockets.

For some companies that want to use recycled wood in their manufacturing processes, it is not enough for the wood chips to be free of inert materials and metals. Rather, other impurities such as wood materials and polymers must also be removed. However, these materials cannot be distinguished using X-ray technology. So, Tomra, a company specializing in sensor-based sorting systems, had to find an innovative solution: its new application uses deep learning to sort out processed wood composites such as MDF, HDF, OSB and chipboard as contaminants, leaving a clean fraction of unprocessed wood. If desired, individual high purity engineered wood composite fractions can also be produced out of the infeed stream.

Together with the recycling company Reiling, researchers from the Fraunhofer Center for Silicon Photovoltaics CSP and the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems ISE have developed a process to recycle the silicon from discarded crystalline photovoltaic modules. The wafers entirely made of recycled silicon were fabricated into PERC solar cells. In the first trial, the solar cell conversion efficiency was 19.7 percent. According to Fraunhofer ISE, this is below the efficiency of today's premium PERC solar cells, which have an efficiency of around 22.2 percent, “but it is certainly above that of the solar cells in the old, discarded modules.” The recycling process is scalable and makes economic sense. The picture shows purified silicon and a wafer entirely made from recycled silicon.

The Technical University of Cologne wants to recycle old bicycle tires using a pyrolysis process, thus generating gas, oil, and coke. The pyrolysis gas is converted into electricity in two combined heat and power plants, making the plant independent in terms of energy. The pyrolysis oil can be further processed into valuable fine chemicals for the chemical industry. The pyrolysis coke—also called recovered carbon black—will be incorporated into new bicycle tire compounds to replace fossil-derived industrial carbon black. Cooperation partners involved are Ralf Bohle GmbH and Pyrum Innovations AG.

Researchers at Murdoch University in Perth/Australia are converting organic food waste into methane, lactic acid, and carbon dioxide in a biorefinery. While the methane can be fed into the natural gas grid and be used to generate electricity or fuels, lactic acid is an important basic chemical used in the pharmaceutical, food and textile industries as well as in the production of biodegradable plastics. According to the scientists, recovery of lactic acid is not only technically feasible, but also attractive from a commercial point of view.

In January, chemical group Eastman announced plans to invest up to $1 billion in a molecular plastics recycling facility in France, which is intended to process about 160,000 t of hard-to-recycle plastic waste annually—material currently being incinerated. At the new facility, the waste will be broken down into its molecular building blocks and then reassembled into reusable material. The recycling facility with associated innovation center is scheduled to be operational by 2025 at an undisclosed location in France.

Those interested in cutting-edge solutions in the international circular economy will be able to get a much broader overview at IFAT Munich—the World's Leading Trade Fair for Water, Sewage, Waste and Raw Materials Management.