Recycling Water

When we think of recycling it’s usually in terms of manufactured goods being converted back into raw materials for reuse. There are much wider applications, however, and in fact one of the largest and oldest recycling sectors doesn’t deal with manufactured goods at all. Instead it deals with a vital natural resource that’s plentifully available globally but, in a cruel twist of fate, often very scarce at a local level. That resource is water.

Water covers 71 percent of Earth’s surface, and the total volume on the planet is about 321 million cubic miles – an immense quantity. Unfortunately most of it is unusable as a resource. The main uses we put water to are drinking, agriculture and manufacturing, so we need liquid fresh water. Most of Earth’s water – 97.5 percent – is seawater, which is heavily loaded with salt and other minerals, and most of what’s left is frozen or otherwise inaccessible. Only 0.3 percent of the total is fresh surface water, and the demands of the growing population are putting this resource under huge strain. The problem is that most of the water we use is contaminated by that use. Recycling allows us to remove some or all of the contaminants and allow the water to be reused.

In practice all water is “recycled” through the natural water cycle, but deliberate recycling can hugely increase the available supplies. The aim is to allow water to be used more than once before it returns to the water cycle, and there are various ways this can be achieved. One of the simplest and oldest measures is the recovery of rainwater. Towns and cities have elaborate drainage systems to channel rainwater safely away, preventing damage to streets and buildings. This water picks up contaminants however, and is not safe to drink without considerable processing. However it can be used to irrigate fields or, after filtering, for many industrial uses.

Sewage is more of a challenge, as it contains large quantities of potentially hazardous waste. Since the 1920s sewage treatment plants have become increasingly sophisticated at allowing the water content to be reused. The most basic technique is to allow the solid waste to settle out, at which point the water can be released back into rivers; when it is extracted again downstream standard treatment methods can be used. Modern treatments usually process it further, either by chlorination or the use of bacterial cultures, to the point where it can be directly used for purposes other than drinking.

The latest technology can convert waste water directly back into extremely clean water suitable for drinking. Reverse osmosis, where permeable membranes are used to filter out any contamination, and ultraviolet disinfection are capable of turning heavily polluted waste into very high quality drinking water. An extreme example is the ECLSS system on board the International Space Station – this reprocesses all waste water, including urine, into safe potable water.

Many international relations experts predict that future wars could be caused by competition for water supplies. Already droughts can devastate agriculture and threaten millions of lives. If recycling can advance to the point where rivers can provide high quality water to every country they flow through this would go a long way to relieving these issues, so water should be one of the highest priorities for recycling.

Recycling Workers

There’s no serious dispute about the vital importance of recycling in saving valuable resources. Every informed person now understands that we can’t keep discarding materials after a single use, and that reducing the volume of waste sent to landfill is essential if we’re going to minimize pollution and environmental destruction. However that’s not to say that there isn’t a debate about the best way to recycle or a widespread belief that as it’s done right now the recycling industry has its own share of problems. One of the issues that need to be looked at is the people who actually work in the industry.

There’s a wide spectrum of technology used in modern recycling. Modern plasma jet plants are automated trailer units that can be easily set up and operated by a small crew. They’re largely automated and fitted with sophisticated systems to capture any dangerous chemicals emitted during the recycling process. That’s the high technology end of the spectrum though, and right now that sort of safeguard only applies to small plants in wealthier countries. A lot of recycling happens under very different conditions.

In many developing nations, and even middle-income countries like Brazil, most “recycling” is carried out by dump pickers who scavenge for potentially valuable material and sell what they find for scrap. That’s the other extreme from plasma jet units, but in between there are a lot of waste processing industries that place workers in unhealthy, and often extremely dangerous, situations. A large percentage of electrical and electronics scrap is still shipped to China for processing, where it’s sorted and broken up by hand. The processing technologies used create levels of pollution that can be extreme, and include lead and dioxins. Plastic waste is also shipped to China and other Asian nations for processing and again both pay and industrial safety standards can be extremely low.

One of the largest-scale recycling activities is shipbreaking. In the past this was often carried out in western yards, where ships would be moored alongside and stripped before being dry-docked and broken up by fairly mechanized workers. Now they’re more likely to be sold for deadweight and towed to India, Bangladesh or Turkey, where they’re simply beached then broken up by work gangs with hand-held tools. This is a polluting process that often results in oil and contaminated bilge water being released into the environment, and it’s also extremely dangerous for the workers. Deaths from badly maintained equipment, oil vapor explosions and collapsing superstructure or hulls are very common; pay for these workers is usually extremely low and protective clothing is minimal.

While many types of waste processing and sorting can’t be done economically in a high-wage economy like the USA, improved technology can change this. Much of the electronic scrap sent to China could be handled by domestic plasma arc plants if the capacity existed; it’s growing, but isn’t anywhere near large enough yet. Expanding these plants, and other advanced systems, won’t just reduce the risk to workers; it will save the energy used in transporting waste and in the often inefficient methods used to process it overseas. Finally it will create skilled jobs in the USA, so developing domestic capacity needs to be a priority in the waste industry.

Why Are Cities Planting Fast Growing Trees?

Most attention on recycling tends to go to materials produced by man – plastics, paper and electronics are probably the big three issues. That’s not the end of the story though. Trees and other plants make up a large percentage of what we throw away. According to EPA figures yard trimmings account for 13.5 percent of municipal solid waste – 110 pounds of grass clippings, old pot plants and dead Christmas trees for every American per year. Then figure in lopped branches from forestry, unharvested parts of crops and the huge amount of plant matter disposed of by the food industry and we’re talking about millions of tons of plant matter to be disposed of every year. If left to decompose it will release huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, so sending it to landfill counts as a very bad idea. What gets done to it instead?

Fast Growing Tree Trunk

Large public works projects such as roads and commercialized areas require the clearing of land. This is usually in the form of vacant forests of varying sizes. All of the trees and plants that are cleared get filtered to their respective industries; large trees get sourced for timber while the remaining shrubs and smaller plant material is filtered down the recycling line. Environmental advocates have pushed hard for reforestation bills that ensure whatever trees are cut down are replaced so that there is almost no negative environmental impact. Many municipalities have enacted laws such as these and are considered 1 for 1: however many acres of forest are cut down, they replace that same amount of land with new saplings to regrow the forest. Because the goal is to reforest cheaply and quickly, municipalities choose from a list of fast growing trees for their area so that the saplings mature quickly to continue pulling harmful greenhouse gasses such as CO2 from the air. Although these bills are not nationwide, they are quickly taking hold as more and more cities adopt these laws. So what happens with the actual trees and plants that are cut down and discarded?

Tree Farm

Probably the most valuable resource in plant waste is wood. What goes for recycling isn’t usually good enough quality to be used for timber or furniture, otherwise it would be used in those industries, but it’s still wood and it can be processed into several useful products. The basic way of processing it is by chipping. Foliage is stripped away and the wood is mechanically reduced to small chips of varying sizes. Where it goes from there depends on the type and quality of the wood. Softwood can be fully pulped and turned into paper, although most of the demand for that is met by recycling existing paper or wood from managed forests. Chips can also be formed into wood-based construction materials like particle board, which is cheaper than solid timber and performs better in many applications. It also reduces the need to cut forests for raw materials. Lower grades of particle board can be made from much of the wood sent to recycling.

Wood chips, waste and pulp

Another option that’s becoming more popular is biomass power. This is a fuel source, usually used for electricity generation, which exploits organic waste. Wood and a wide variety of other materials, including spent sugarcane, can be chipped and burned as a fuel in suitable boilers. This then generates steam, which turns a turbine to create electrical power. With carbon sequestration equipment fitted this is a low-pollution and sustainable method of generation that doesn’t use up scarce fossil fuels.

As well as wood there are huge quantities of soft plant matter to consider. The most efficient way to use this is through composting. By managing the decomposition of plant material a rich natural fertilizer can be produced. This has been done for thousands of years by simply piling waste in a heap and keeping it damp, but industrial processes have now been developed. Stricter control of the process improves the quality of the compost and also minimizes the emission of greenhouse gases like methane. The largest stainless steel building on the continent is a composting plant in Alberta, Canada; it’s the size of 14 NHL rinks and every year it turns 250,000 tons of waste into 80,000 tons of compost.

Tree and plant waste is produced in huge quantities and can be bulky, but because it’s all natural material it can be recycled using low-tech and usually economical methods. However it is carbon rich, which is potentially a serious environmental hazard. Properly managed, though, it’s a valuable resource and one that’s being exploited with increasing efficiency.

About Downcycling

Recycling is becoming more popular as a way of both reducing the amount of waste we send to landfill and of conserving valuable or scarce resources. The second of these advantages could turn out to be the most important – many natural resources are limited, and when we’ve used them they’re gone forever. Recycling can make a huge difference to availability by making new products out of old ones instead of freshly extracted raw materials. Even renewable resources come at a price – land used for growing pulp trees might be more valuable for grazing livestock, if paper can be produced from recycled pulp instead.

It’s important to remember that recycling isn’t a magic bullet though. It can make a big impact, but one problem is that recycled materials often aren’t the same quality as the original waste was. This means that what’s recovered might not be suitable for making the same kinds of products, or might only be capable of recycling a limited number of times before it’s no longer usable. Improved technology is reducing this issue in some areas but it’s still very real. It even has a name – “downcycling”.

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Recycling Paper

Recycling PaperPaper is one of the biggest challenges to modern waste disposal. Paper makes up around 35 percent of domestic waste by weight and can cause significant problems in landfill. Huge quantities are used for disposable products such as newspapers and packaging and while the basic raw material – softwood – is renewable, significant amounts of energy and chemicals are used in the production process.  Most paper is produced using woods such as birch or aspen, but other fast growing trees such as poplar, ash and empress tree varieties are commonly used.

Tulip-poplar-TreeMany kinds of recycling are aimed at recovering scarce raw materials; electrical scrap, for example, contains valuable metals. Recycling plastics reduces the amount of oil used for producing new materials. That doesn’t really apply to paper because most new pulp is made from sustainable softwoods grown for the purpose. However converting raw wood to paper is an energy-intensive process, and while modern mills generate most of their power by burning scrap wood and bark this can create significant carbon emissions. Waste paper is usually printed, and as it decomposes in landfills the ink leaches out into the ground. This often causes heavy metal contamination of soil and even the water table.

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Recycling Plastics

Plastics have revolutionized consumer goods. Cheap, versatile and durable, they’ve made whole classes of new products possible and reduced the price of others to the point where everyone can afford them. They’re a nightmare from a waste disposal point of view, though. Many types of plastic can take hundreds or even thousands of years to biodegrade. Huge quantities have ended up in landfill since the early 20th century and more is floating in the oceans, sometimes forming artificial islands of trash dozens of miles across. As well as the environmental damage of all this junk there’s the resources used to make it; most plastics are made from oil, a vital but finite resource. Efficient recycling of plastic waste is vital.

Because there are so many different plastics a wide range of recycling technologies are used to deal with them. Efficient sorting is key; different types often can’t be mixed to produce even low-grade material. Early systems worked with bulk waste that had been presorted by type but modern recycling plants use infrared technology to identify and automatically sort different varieties of plastic. These can then be processed appropriately.

One of the biggest challenges is plastic drinks bottles, made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Tens of millions of these are discarded every day in the USA, and unlike older glass bottles they can’t be reused. They can be processed into other products though.

First, bottles are sorted by color. Most of them are clear, making the process easier. Once sorted they’re washed and shredded into small flakes. The washing and shredding process removes scrap like labels and bottle tops, which are made of different materials. The clean, flaked PET is compressed into bales and sold for reuse.

Flaked PET can be heat-formed into a variety of products. It’s often used for packaging materials; clear PET waste can be made into clamshell or blister packs, used for packaging many small items. If it’s appropriately sterilized it can be made into new food containers; molten PET is blown into molds to produce new jars or bottles. It can also be injection molded for a variety of purposes.

One use that’s becoming increasingly popular is fabric manufacture. Heated PET flakes can be spun into fibers, which can then be woven into cloth. The result is a strong, hard-wearing fabric, although it’s usually too rough to be work next to the skin. It’s widely used for heavier duty items though, including bags, coats and hats. As recycling becomes more widespread environmentally friendly consumers are increasingly demanding these products.

Recycling plastics tends to be energy intensive, as heat is needed for most stages of the process, but it’s also something that needs to be done on a larger scale than it is now. Plastic in landfills can take a very long time to decompose, and as it does it releases toxins into the soil (and sometimes the water supply). Burial of plastics also adds up to a huge waste of valuable resources. Luckily improved recycling technology is making the process more economical and opening new uses for the recycled material.

Recycling & Landfills

Whenever a new recycling scheme or technology is announced one of its advantages is usually that it reduces the amount of waste going to landfill. In fact that’s one of the most important things new techniques can do – often it’s even more significant than recovering valuable metals or reducing the need for new raw materials. Landfill is a huge problem and the more it can be reduced the better.

A landfill site is one of the oldest methods of waste disposal, along with burning. It’s not much more than a huge version of the medieval village midden, but as the quantities of trash we produce increase the volume of waste going into huge pits in the ground, then being covered over and often landscaped, has skyrocketed. The problem is that a medieval village didn’t throw away much more than broken pottery, bones and old clothing; modern household garbage is filled with plastics, printed paper and old electronic devices.

Modern trash doesn’t simply biodegrade back into the food chain. Toxins in inks and old plastic are leached out by rain or groundwater and can contaminate aquifers. Electronic devices are particularly bad for this, as they contain many hazardous heavy metals. As organic waste rots it releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas – it’s up to a hundred times more damaging than carbon dioxide. Burning waste before burial doesn’t help either, as it simply releases more carbon and toxins into the atmosphere. Large accumulations of trash are a potential source of disease organisms that can then be spread by birds, insects and rodents. Even fire is a hazard – if a landfill catches fire it can burn underground for years, undermining the replaced soil above it and releasing pollutants.

There are multiple solutions to the problem of landfills. Some involve mitigating the issues caused by actual landfill sites, usually by managing drainage and improved capping of filled areas. These are only a partial solution, though. It’s far better to reduce the amount of waste that’s buried in the first place, which is where recycling comes in. Much of what gets landfilled can be reprocessed – paper, glass and many plastics. Organic wastes can be used to produce methane as a fuel. Electronics components can be dealt with by chemical or high-energy methods to recover their usable contents and reduce the rest to an inert, non-toxic residue that tales up far less space and is safe to bury.

Modern incinerator technology also allows much of the material that’s currently disposed of to be recovered. Metals and other minerals present in waste can be extracted from the smoke produced, while toxins and environmentally damaging chemicals are safely captured. Some of these methods are energy-intensive, which has to be balanced against the waste reduction, but others are capable of generating much of their own power from the incineration process.

Landfill is likely to be around for a while longer, although the Zero Waste movement’s ultimate goal is to see them phased out completely, but both consumer-led policies such as packaging reduction and improved waste handling and recycling can reduce the volume immensely. That’s good for the environment, good for natural resources and ultimately cheaper than burying so much potentially valuable material.

Recycling News (7-22-2014)

Over half of the paper consumed in the United States is now recycled, a steady improvement on the situation during the 1990s, but progress is slower than it could be. Now a new building material has the potential to create a huge new demand for waste paper that could help push the rate up faster than before.

A team at the University of Nottingham in the UK has developed a new composite material based on shredded waste paper. Long, fine strands of paper are bonded together under high pressure using a sodium silicate gluing agent, resulting in a material that’s as strong as the particle board often used for interior walls, ceilings and other non-load bearing structural components. In other ways it’s superior to particle board. The use of sodium silicate makes the new material resistant to flame and moisture, which has obvious safety advantages for a construction material. Additionally it can be used in many environments where particle board is unsuitable. Particle board has a tendency to discolor when exposed to moisture; in extreme cases it can distort, swell or even disintegrate. The bonding process means it can also be molded into different shapes. One option is to mold it with a ribbed surface, giving much greater structural strength for the same weight of material. Most particle board comes as flat boards or strips, so the pressed paper alternative is more versatile and could well turn out to be more durable, too.

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Recycling Trees for Profit

When the Christmas festivity is over, the Christmas tree standing in a corner looks like its taking it up too much space and we all want to take it out of the house as soon as possible. While most of us do not really care about what is going to happen to that tree, there are some who just dump it in the waste bin without a single thought. This is why, in the next few weeks following the Christmas season, you can see the dump trucks carrying hundreds of trees in a single day. But is it the best way to dispose off of your Christmas tree? Actually, there is a smarter way – you can recycle the Christmas tree and help it turn into something useful like mulch, fish or bird feeder. And if your tree still has its roots intact, then you can even plant it back into the ground.

Thuja-Green-GiantIf you are living in the US, then you can always help the nature a little by recycling your trees – not only the Christmas tree but other popular US trees as well. There are many such trees which can give you wood for furniture, fire wood, mulch for your garden, herbs and more. All trees have their different uses and consequently their recycling is also different. For example, an oak tree can be recycled into a nice piece of furniture while a eucalyptus tree can be used for its herbal therapeutic use. This is why you should consider calling your local tree care organization before chopping a tree into firewood. A tree in an “as is” state has more value in the market, than when it is sold for fire wood. Before you pick up your chain saw or ax to work on a fallen tree, you should read more about how different popular US trees can be used.

Hardwood trees: The hardwood trees constitute a large number of tree species. In general, hardwood trees are the botanical group of trees that have large, broad leaves, produce some sort of nuts and they go dormant in the winters. In the US, there are hundreds of different hardwood tree species in the forest area as well as in the human inhabited zones. The oak, maple and cherry trees are some fine examples of hardwood trees. The great fact about hardwood trees is that they produce lumber quality wood. In other words, these trees can easily be recycled into wood needed for building material and construction. Some of the hardwood trees, if they are in very good quality, can also be used to make furniture.

Herbal and therapeutic trees: It is a common misconception that all the herbal trees are small shrubs or bushes. But on the contrary, many of the herbals trees are fully grown, tall, mature trees that you can climb upon and make a tree house. Cedar trees, for example, are used to produce cedar tea from its wood – making it very easy to recycle them into high quality tea. Cedar wood can also be used as incense. Eucalyptus trees are also used for their therapeutic benefits and are full of eucalyptus oil that is sold at high price in the market. If you have a eucalyptus tree to be recycled, then you might want to contact your local herbal medicine manufacturer first.

Persimmon trees: The persimmon trees give delicious persimmon fruits in their bearing years. As soon as they grow to the age of three years, they start producing persimmons which you can relish almost everyday. But when their bearing days are over and they are no longer giving any fruits, you may want to plant new trees in their place. Good news is that wood from the persimmon trees is highly valuable as it is used to make high quality wooden golf clubs. This is why in Tennessee, where the golf clubs are manufactured, the persimmon trees are sold at very high prices. You can certainly have your old persimmon tree recycled into golf clubs and make some profit out of it.

Christmas trees: Christmas trees are usually either fir trees or pine trees. Both of these trees have little or no value for the sawmill, furniture or in lumber. But if you have a wood chipper, then you can easily turn it into mulch for your garden. This mulch is biodegradable and acts as a very good natural nourishment for your garden soil. In addition, this mulch can also prevent soil erosion during heavy rains. These trees can also be used as fish feeders when sunk into private fish ponds. If you have large garden or backyard, then you can also use these trees as bird feeders for some time.

Trees for sawmill: Before you turn a fallen or otherwise unwanted tree into firewood, you should contact your local sawmill and see if they have any requirements for the type of popular US trees that you have. In general, they accept all types of trees – even the ones that you cannot identify and are growing in the streets. The sawmills have high demands for trees like walnut, butternut, ash, oaks, cherry, maples, elms, cedar, sycamore and cherry. But the gum trees are generally not wanted.

Every tree that you recycle from the urban area guarantees that one less tree is going to be cut down from the forests. You should strive hard to prevent good quality wood from being turned into firewood or mulch, and instead put it to a much better use. If you do not know where to contact the saw-millers, carpenter or wood crafts person, then you can always ask around or contact your municipality. Some tree care organizations and ecology activists can also help you find the right person. Besides the commercial buyers, many hobbyists and crafts-persons are also willing to take a look at your tree and see if it can be turned into a piece of art. You will be amazed to see that some of the spalted logs (having random black lines because of fungal decay) are highly desired and are sold at handsome prices when turned into a finished art project.

References:

http://www.na.fs.fed.us/pubs/tps/recycle/recycling_trees.pdf
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Persimmon#Wood
http://www.realchristmastrees.org/dnn/AllAboutTrees/HowtoRecycle.aspx
Photo Credit:

http://www.thetreecenter.com

Recycling News (7-7-2014)

There’s good news this week for electronic scrap disposal, with recycling specialist 3S International announcing the opening of the USA’s first BLUBOX processing facility at Mount Pleasant, Michigan. This innovative plant will handle up to 7,000 tons of e-scrap every year and it’s just the first step in what 3S are planning.

The rapid growth in consumer electronics shows no sign of slowing down, but it’s proven to be a real headache for waste disposal. Many devices, including cellphones and media players, have a fairly short life cycle before obsolescence claims them and that means millions are disposed of every year. Computers, monitors, TVs and other devices are lower in numbers but much greater in bulk, and a distressing percentage of them end up in landfills. That’s both a waste of the valuable materials they contain and a serious environmental hazard. Almost anything with a screen – especially LCD or backlit models – contains mercury, for example, and it only takes small quantities to cause serious contamination. As households move from conventional light bulbs to compact fluorescents that particular problem is liable to get worse; modern lamps, including CFTs and halogen bulbs, contain a worrying assortment of toxic chemicals and other pollutants.

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