Sprints: Sorting through a flurry of new recycling technologies

Most people toss their waste into a bin and forget about it. Even in places where a rainbow of bin colors dots city streets—green for compost, blue for recycling, etc.—most waste ends up in a single stream that goes to an all-purpose processing facility. It is here where new technologies are turning one person’s trash into another person’s treasure, sorting and separating rubbish more effectively and efficiently than humans can do by hand.

These technologies were the focus of a recent Sprint, a unique service in which Emerald directly connects large corporates with cutting-edge startups to solve business challenges with innovation and ingenuity. Fredric Petit and Neil Cameron, partners in our sustainable packaging innovation fund, organized the Packaging Sprint, convening a number of our limited partners to discuss the challenges in Waste Analytics, Sorting and Traceability.

Why bother sorting waste?

Concern over the environmental and social impact of (plastic) waste is mounting as disposable items like cups, wrappers, boxes and the like circulate in ever-greater numbers. Recycling of various products is now mandatory in many jurisdictions, including major players like the EU, where proposed rules will ensure all products are designed for recycling by 2030 (more on that below). In California, all forms of single-use packaging must be recyclable or compostable by 2032. Making products from recycled material can also be less emissions intensive than using virgin feedstock—a key consideration for several companies in the materials value chain racing to meet net-zero targets.

Even as manufacturers and brand owners refine their product roadmap to ensure recyclability, mechanisms need to exist to ensure that items that can be recycled end up in the right place. This is where cutting-edge technologies like digital watermarking, artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain and more can help. This is true both on and off the conveyor belts that serve as the first port of call for most rubbish once they reach the processing facility.

Innovation throughout the lifecycle

Tools are now proliferating that can help processing facilities separate various forms of waste, including several sub-sets of plastic. Containers that hold food or beverages, for instance, should not be manufactured from plastic that was previously in contact with industrial cleaning chemicals. Some packages are “designed for recycling”. This means that the manufacturer guarantees recyclability of the package if it is handled properly and not sent to a landfill. An ideal sorting system would even be able to differentiate between specific types and grades of polymer.

Getting to this level of granularity in sorting, however, is not a matter for the processing facility alone. It requires coordination across the entire value circle, starting with the producer. Key touch points along the lifecycle where new innovations could spark progress in circularity and waste reduction include:

  • Identification: Manufacturers of disposable items can embed various “tags” on or within the product itself. These include barcodes, QR codes, radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, watermarks and more. Each product thus carries a unique digital fingerprint that may contain various pieces of information, such as weight, chemical composition, etc. When discarded, processing facilities can “read” these tags to access these factoids, which can help them know what to do with the material.
  • Tracing: These identification tags can also help stakeholders in the value chain know where a product is at any given moment. In combination with platforms like digital dashboards and blockchain-based digital ledgers, huge amounts of data can be collected and crunched to open a window onto waste at a macro-level. This can help the industry gain a picture of how much recyclable waste is going to the right place and how much is being erroneously diverted to landfill.
  • Sorting: A wide range of technologies are disrupting the typical conveyor belt model of waste sorting, from chemical analysis to electro-magnetic detection of RFID tags. Among the most intriguing are AI-powered vision and robotic-arm systems that can “see” different types of waste and shuffle them around appropriately.

There is no silver bullet for recycling. It requires an all-of-the-above approach that marries innovation with scale to establish new paradigms for business-as-usual. This remains Emerald’s key value proposition and the founding principle of our Sprints program. If you would like to find out more, please get in touch.