Using recycled materials to create new products. It seems like such an obvious answer to humanity's consumption of natural resources and huge quantities of waste produced. So what is holding businesses back from fully embracing recycled materials? And what are the advantages to be had from making products such as furniture out of recycled materials?
Firstly, and most obviously, using recycled materials conserves natural resources that are not infinite. Earth Overshoot Day, which calculates at which date of the year humanity begins to extract more resources than the planet can realistically replenish itself with, currently stands at July 29th - a date which has steadily receded since its inception in 1970. As an alarming reference, in 1990 Earth overshoot day was dated October 11th.
With a market value of $527billion, the furniture industry consumes a significant amount of materials. Using as much recycled content as possible, especially plastic and metal, is a vital method businesses can utilise to reduce the global reliance on virgin materials.
Recycling materials reduces the amount of waste that is either burnt, put in landfill, or dumped in nature or the waterways. Less than 20% of municipal waste is recycled each year, with huge quantities of that sent to landfill. By 2050, it is estimated that worldwide municipal solid waste generation will have increased by roughly 70% to 3.4 billion metric tons.
What’s more recycling rates actually fell across Europe, Asia, and the US as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. On top of that, the pandemic produced a surplus amount of new waste in the forms of PPE and single-use items. Research by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that the pandemic has so far generated over 8 million tons of plastic waste around the world and over 25,000 tons of that waste entered the ocean.
It is clear that recycling materials will be crucial in the coming years to avoid catastrophic harm to the environment, maintaining a circular economy of materials, from product to product.
Making products from recycled materials requires considerably less energy than making them from raw materials. This is because the recycled materials have already been refined and processed once, which is both energy and resource intensive.
Producing moulded recycled aluminium uses 95% less energy than creating virgin aluminium, a material that can be recycled endlessly. For steel, that number is roughly 70%. Paper from pulped recycled paper uses 40% less energy than from virgin wood fibres.
Looking at the three most recyclable plastic varieties - Polyethylene (PET), High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) and Polypropylene (PP) - the expended energies to produce virgin plastics are X1.7, X3.0 and X3.0 times greater respectively when compared to using post-consumer recycled plastic pellets. A figure which also includes the collection and sorting of waste plastics and the production of sorted recycled plastic pellets.
The knock-on effect of less energy-intensive production is a reduction in carbon emissions and pollutants. Taking those same three plastic varieties as an example, the cut in emissions to create recycled resin vs virgin is 67% for PET, 71% for HDPE and 71% for PP. In a far-reaching study by the Association of Plastic Recyclers, (APR), only four of a total of 84 categories examined did not show savings.
When it comes to metals, recycled steel production vs virgin steel reduces air pollution by 86%, water use by 40% and water pollution by 76%. Producing recycled moulded aluminium reduces Co2 emissions by 92% compared to raw aluminium.
Recycling is nothing new, but on an industrial scale, there is a long way to go. Metal recycling, especially using industrial waste (offcuts from factories), is indeed significant. In fact, 70% of all steel and 75% of aluminium produced is said to still be in use today. Current recycling rates for steel is 80%, whilst Europe has the highest recycling Efficiency Rate of any region when it comes to recycling aluminium with a rating of 81%.
The difference couldn’t be more startling when we look at plastics. Of the roughly 8300 million metric tonnes (Mt) of plastic produced since the 1950s only 9% has ever been recycled, with 12% incinerated and 79% in landfill or the natural environment. This is 6,557 million metric tonnes. So why is the rate so low?
A 2019 report from S&P Global Platts, a commodity market specialist, revealed that recycled plastic costs an extra $72 USD a tonne compared to newly made plastic. This higher price has partly been driven by a growing demand for recycled plastic from manufacturers looking to use more recycled materials, but also the drop in price for virgin plastics thanks to a flood of petrochemicals production driven by the US shale boom.
In principle, because turning recycled plastic into new products uses less energy, it should be cheaper. However, a lack on infrastructure in many nations is holding back its availability and usage.
For many years, North American and European countries were sending millions of tonnes of recyclables to China. This changed in 2018 when China stopped buying recyclables from overseas. Known as the National Sword Policy it caused the price of recyclables to plummet and left exporting nations with mountains of waste they could not process themselves, having previously relied on China instead of investment in local facilities.
As we have mentioned with metals, the recycling rate is extremely high thanks to a robust and established routine, both industrially and domestically to recycle materials such as aluminium and steel. With plastics, and more recently E-waste, it’s not so easy. For a start, there are so many types of plastics it makes it hard to sort correctly. And whilst most developed nations offer widescale recycling schemes, people often end up mixing recyclable and non-recyclable plastics in the same box or bin, meaning that it must be sorted again, which impacts the value of the plastic when it’s resold. Items such as phone chargers and small electrical goods contain a wealth of hard plastics such as (PP) and (HDPE) as well as precious and semi-precious metals, but due to their composite nature, they are rarely recycled when placed into largescale schemes which focus on pre dismantled, single material items such as packaging.
Despite the clear and obvious environmental benefits of using recycled materials, especially plastic, a global trend of increased usage requires a mixture of government regulation and the organic creation of a marketplace making it easier and more cost-effective.
From April, UK companies will have to pay an additional tax when using plastic in packaging that does not contain a minimum of 30% recycled materials. The Circular Plastics Alliance, a collective endeavour aimed at taking action to boost the EU market for recycled plastics, has a goal of 10 million tonnes annually of readily available recycled plastic by 2025.
Increasing the share of recycled materials we use in our furniture is one of the key sustainability goals that Flokk as a company has set itself. In 1995, we first began launching chairs experimenting with recycled plastic, and since then have steadily increased the share of recycled materials in our designs. Our aim is to reach, on average, 60% recycled materials in all our furniture by 2030.
With the 2021 HÅG Tion, we achieved 68-74% recycled materials, showing we are well on the way to achieving this goal. We even introduced colour-sorted recycled plastics with a 94% share of post-consumer plastics, an important breakthrough for our long-term efforts.
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