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Which Country do you Recycle plastic in?

Updated: Apr 24, 2023

Recently I was asked this question and it was interesting to note that people had assumed the waste is somehow moved away from the UK, turned into filament and brought back. Perhaps it tells us something about our marketing and engagement of people assume the waste moves anywhere!

What Normally Happens to Plastic Waste

It's important to understand how our model differs to conventional recycling. When I tell you it is not just the country, but the building, town or city the waste comes from, it’ll make more sense.

Conventional waste has several economic actors.

  • Waste recyclers capture lots and lots of plastic in bins from many different places (commercial and/or municipal). Bottles are the majority of the valuable material - to drop off at Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs)

  • There, it is “recovered” (sorted) & baled and they sells those bales to someone. It sits in a yard until it’s collected. here, soft plastics presents a challenge, especially if they're woven because they can tangle around different key parts of the recovery infrastructure, which makes it difficult to recycle. While there are now ways of dealing with soft plastics, their presence in the hard plastic waste stream still posed a challenge and at scale that challenge gets exponentially worse.

  • The buyer/broker, who could be anywhere, granulates or even pelletise it, via extrusion & sells it on to a manufacturer, who could also be anywhere

  • The manufacturer either combines that with virgin plastic, or uses it native and then makes something out of it

  • That is then shipped to another buyer who uses it for a thing (e.g. refilling the bottles with drinks) via freight, haulage and logistics

  • …to a warehouse, often run by an importer.

In between each of these stages is a transportation step which is significant. Conventional recycling takes a plastic bottle at one end and it only becomes part of another plastic bottle (if it becomes part of another plastic anything) 18 weeks later. It’s cycle time is 18 weeks!

Worse, as we've seen over the last decade, the law doesn't stop unscrupulous or unregulated markets from getting this waste through exports one way or another.

At the other end, most areas use most commodity products. So this is akin to transporting waste hundreds or even thousands of miles only to bring it back hundreds or thousands of miles after manufacturing something from it. Also, Mathematically, hub and spoke geospatial architectures are inefficient for transportation.

Not only that, the grade of plastics has to be high, and any plastic that doesn't meet the grade then gets landfilled or burnt. But burning it, while half the emission of coal, also has a third of the energy density. Which means you burn three times as much for the same MWh. Making it worse than coal! plus, that poses is destructive even though the plastics are totally viable! They just don’t have a market for it.

So to get some value from operationally unrecyclable waste (waste that is technically recyclable but isn’t economically viable at the scales it is done at) especially if it looks good on statistics, they will often export it. Including to countries which don’t have the recycling infrastructure. That is unethical ecologically and commercially, as this is a form of what I call “carbon tax avoidance”.

What we do

Our process is completely different! We don’t move the waste that far from where the waste is generated. Our Stockport facility [Cheeky self-promo: Eventbrite to our open day] is built into a mill. Serving up to 90 businesses inside the building and those in surrounding areas. It can take the place of half the garbage room. So instead of one centralised material recovery facility, which then has to send waste on elsewhere, silo-to-silo, the entirely of the circular economy, cradle-to-cradle, from the point of bringing the waste in until products come out of the back end, is inside that one room! Not only, that but we have built this into half a shipping container before.

Our cycle time can be as little as 25 minutes. That means hundreds of smaller, energy efficient facilities, that can tear through recycling a city’s waste, into higher economic value products, in parallel, in no time!

Each one of our cluster hubs, can process up to 250kg of Plastic a week and the product output depends on how many 3D print machines you want to distribute in the district around the facility (usually within 15 minutes, to align with 15 minute communities) but a basic 10 machine, nano v1 cluster can turn 60kg of product from that while our nano v2 fleet can make up to 360kg in the same period.

Better still, We optimally engineer our products to remove plastic where it's not needed. Which is something you can't do with injection moulding. Creating a higher volume of products for the same weight of plastic and because we recycling much wider range of products, we can take plastics that drop out of the MRF, or are fished out of the ocean, because of the way we engineer and combine it.

Final Answer

The answer to the question of where we recycle waste is “whatever building you're in, wherever you are and we do the manufacturing near you as well” :) This means that permitting, insurance and regulation which differs by country shape what the cradle-to-cradle offering will look like in that country.

Just like the networks and the internet allowed people to swap great big, single site, mainframe systems, with hyper-distributed servers and then hyperscale cloud, we are creating hyper-distributed circularity instances in our “manufacturing cloud”.

Because we do differently [and we're from Manchester]. It is difficult to understand it through the lens of conventional recycling. Hence, it's very easy to ask a question which doesn't really apply to us in the same way :-D

If you'd like to see more about off facilities, and even see the odd machine out in the wild, visit our Instagram: we use that for outreach and some education.

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