Recycling is often forgotten in climate change discussions, with the majority of the focus typically placed on renewable power generation and energy efficiency. However, rapid changes in technology and the commercial environment are providing significant financial and environmental opportunities in this space.
Most opportunities involve a transition away from the traditional 'waste' business model, wherein a fee is collected for 'pickup' and then disposal is made for the lowest cost, to one where income is focused on resource recovery and reuse.
This business model is well established in mature recycling industries such as scrap metal, glass, paper/cardboard and oil. For these industries, recoverable value is maximized as the inherent value is maintained and the recovered material can be reused in original form.
Other items such as rubber and concrete must be diverted into alternative products, due to the one-way chemical reactions that are used in their formation. For these waste streams, the key is to optimize the ratio of value created to process effort employed. Other significant recycling opportunities exist in recovering the byproducts of existing production processes: for example, biochar and its associated syngas, as well as the heat recovery opportunities from many industrial processes.
Generally the relationships between waste stream supply, the conversion process, and the market for recovered materials don't exist or are disjointed, so capturing value requires a major step change, not simply an incremental improvement on existing industries.
If supply can be established and potentially profitable markets identified that maximize the recoverable value, then the key variable to the business model is in creating processing facilities that minimize conversion costs.
Generally, this can be solved using well-established technologies as building blocks, but will require novel overall systems to be developed due to the emergent nature of the industry. For example, it is difficult to find a design or engineering services firm with extensive experience in construction material recycling or biochar facilities, let alone to be able to purchase a standard design off the rack.
With a diverse set of stakeholders and the emergent nature of this process, undertaking a novel facility design requires a unique set of capabilities. Designs cannot simply be developed based on previous projects. Rather, the project demands a diverse range of experience, strong collaboration between stakeholders, a design process tailored to suit emergent projects, and advanced design communication tools.
My company, ideas*, recently completed the design role for a world-leading construction materials recycling plant for Alex Fraser Group, a subsidiary of Swire Group. Based in Melbourne, Australia, the 600-ton-per-hour plant processes construction materials into a number of products, most significantly road base.
The recycled material has a 65 percent lower energy requirement than virgin material, resulting in a power savings that is approximately equal to the annual energy consumption of 5,000 homes. The transformation in the company's operations is highlighted by the 350 percent increase in production capacity. (And like most major projects, 3D simulation was used extensively before building commenced.)
What has become clear is that the current environment provides many commercial opportunities in the waste recovery and recycling sectors. The challenge lies in the requirement for a unique combination of investment, market insight and technology development expertise to successfully exploit these significant opportunities.
Mike Percy is the managing director of ideas*.