When we think about recycling, most of the pressure falls on the consumer. Not the manufacturers or industry leaders who force us into certain packaging choices, or more often than not, no choice at all. This is especially true of the food industry, but recycling goods in any industry can reduce waste and preserve resources.
Wouldn't it be great if more of the responsibility for sustainability started at the beginning, rather than the end of the chain?
Here are a few ways businesses could make being 'environmentally friendly' a lot easier.
1. Water Filtered With Fruit Peels
Mexican researchers have developed a way to filter heavy metals, and other pollutants from water using an absorbent material made almost entirely from discarded citrus peels, like oranges and grapefruits.
This is great because there isn't any shortage of those. It's estimated that the food industry produces about 38.2 million tons of fruit peel waste worldwide every year, so this is a great opportunity to put what is usually considered garbage to work.
The material is made using a new treatment called Instant Controlled Pressure Drop, then packing it into fixed bed columns.
"The results show a great potential for the use of said materials as adsorbents capable of competing with commercial activated carbon for the adsorption and recovery of metals present in wastewater in a way that it could be possible to carry out sustainable processes in which products with a great commercial value could be obtained from food industry residues."
- Researcher Luis Alberto Romero Cano
2. Biodegradable Packaging That Keeps Food Fresher, Longer
Food packaging made from cellulose composites, or plant-based material, then coated with 'active components' that have anti-oxidizing and antimicrobial properties, could be an alternative to traditional plastic polymers (AKA those disposable containers everything comes in). Research has found clove ethereal oil to be best at tying free radicals and fighting oxidization, but it isn't antimicrobial.
That's where silver comes in. Adding iconic silver particles not only gives the material long-lasting antimicrobial properties but also makes it stronger and elastic. These non-toxic materials take about two years to degrade. The biggest challenge: making ready to use packaging from natural materials that are heat tolerant.
There are still difficulties in creating something that can hold up to an oven or microwave, yet decompose naturally after a certain length of time. Cellulose can't be used in this way. Similar products are already on the market. Compostable or edible water bottles seem to be gaining some traction. They range from somewhat appealing, to not at all.One company has developed a bottle from Ooho, a gelatin-like substance made from seaweed and other plants. It can be flavored, is cheaper than plastic, and decomposes in 4-6 weeks. Another company, Biota, offers products that are corn based. Designer Ari Jónsson has created a bottle using red algae powder. Crystal Mountain and redleaf Water offer some slightly more traditional options.
Other entirely edible self-packaged foods, like Wikipearls, are becoming popular in Europe, and are sold in some parts of the US. They have plant and nut based skins, with yogurt, ice cream, or liquid centers.
It would be useful for our containers to dissolve naturally instead of clogging landfills and waterways forever. But how many of us actually want to take the next step and eat our water bottle, remains to be seen. Sometimes you just aren't hungry.
3. Recycling Rare Metals
New ways to recycle special and rare metals in batteries are on the horizon. Mining these metals is expensive and can take its toll on the environment. The CoLaBats Initiative is working to make recycling metals like Cobalt, Lanthanides, Nickel, and Lithium easier and cost-efficient. Task-Specific Ionic Liquids (TSIL), or 'designer solvents' as they are sometimes called, are used to break down Li-ion (Lithium-Ion Batteries) and NiMH (Nickel-Metal Hydride Batteries).
These batteries are used in many of our rechargeable goods, like phones, laptops, and increasingly in electric and hybrid cars. These liquids are non-toxic, cheap, and don't require much processing to be reused. Task-specific Ionic Liquid is essentially salt in a liquid state, that has been given special properties in order to perform a certain task. In some cases they can be used with traditional ionic liquids to reduce cost.
Another group of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania are working on new ways to separate rare metals from batteries too. The main method that is currently used for separating these metals is resource consuming. Hundreds of chambers of fluid are hooked up, and two fluids begin flowing past one another. One is acidic and water based, the other, organic. The metals then dissolve, and are extracted. This chemical process must be repeated thousands of times.
Due to expense, only about one percent of these types of metals are recycled.
"Everybody's heard of blood diamonds, but maybe people haven't heard of blood cobalt or tantalum or lithium for that matter. We shouldn't just be throwing so much material away. There's still a lot of value to them. I think that as part of a sustainable approach to manufacturing and developing a 'circular' economy, we should think about the impact and value of materials at every point along their life cycle. And how we can efficiently and effectively bring them back to useful raw materials once they're at the end of their product life."
- Eric Schelter, Department of Chemistry, Penn's School of Arts & Sciences
But that's the old way.
A newer method reduces the amount of time and energy needed, while also decreasing waste generated during the process.
They've done this by bonding ions in mixtures. This mixture contains two types of elements. One is soluble in organics, the other isn't. The solution acts as a filter, removing one metal from the others.
Benzene, the solvent used in most of these experiments is a natural part of crude oil, but it's also carcinogenic. Because of this, researchers are still exploring other solvents friendlier to the environment.
Investing in such projects could help reduce landfill waste and metal consumption.
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