Most of the “recyclable” plastic we all use ends up in the landfill. Its a logistics and economics problem. There needs to be a better way to handle this massive waste stream. A company called CRDC Global may have a viable solution.
Plastics play a wide range of crucial roles in modern society, but they also represent a major waste disposal challenge. Particularly when it comes to consumer packaged goods (CPG) the practical reality is that only a small fraction of the plastic is actually recycled, and a great deal ends up going to landfills or to even more undesirable “end of life” scenarios such as incineration or release into the environment. The problem was exacerbated in 2018 when China stopped accepting this waste for hand sorting. There are many positive strategies being implemented to deal with this waste crisis including better collection in the developing world, decomposable alternative materials, and fully sorted collection of plastics at the business-level. There is also a new technology based on hyperspectral imaging which can differentiate the various clear or plastics based on how they “look” at light wavelengths outside of the visible range.
There is another innovative alternative that is gaining momentum because it addresses the sorting challenge and also provides a positive value proposition. CRDC Global has developed a way to turn mixed plastic waste into a synthetic lightweight aggregate, a substitute for the sand used in making concrete and asphalt. This option benefits from a geographic alignment between where plastic waste is generated and where most construction is underway – major population centers. From a business perspective this is a push/pull scenario – the CPG industry needs a plastic waste solution, and the construction industry needs an alternative to sand.
If you look on the bottom or side of “recyclable” plastic containers there is a number between 1 and 7. In terms of recycling, only “1s” and “2s” (PET and HDPE) are practical candidates for recycling into new containers and there is an almost zero tolerance for any mixing of types or contamination with labels or organic matter. Plastics marked “3” to “6” are of minimal value for re-use and “7” stands for “other” and has essentially no value. CRDC has developed a process that can take a mixed load including all these plastic categories and turn it into a new plastic resin. The process is the “brainchild” of CEO Donald Thomson. Ross Gibby, COO, creatively named its output “RESIN8.”
The process is as follows: the mixed plastics are chopped, shredded and granulated into small flakes which can include a reasonable degree of organic contamination (e.g. the residue left in a bottle of ketchup or a peanut butter container). At that stage some naturally occurring minerals are added – similar to those that are used for “liming” of agricultural soils. That mixture is melted and extruded as a foam which hardens to something akin to a plastic lava rock. It is finally ground into granules the size and gradation of fine sand. That material can then be added to cement at a ration of 2% to 25% to make concrete for anything from pre-formed blocks to poured structures or surfaces. High quality sand is a scarce resource in many regions, and it is very expensive to transport. A local alternative is a very attractive concept for the construction industry as long as it is functionally and visually equivalent. The RESIN8 concrete checks all those boxes. Not only that, concrete made with RESIN8 has several advantages compared to conventional concrete. It is lighter weight; it provides higher thermal insulation, and it absorbs more noise. It is just as strong and long-lasting. At the end of its useful life, concrete made with RESIN8 can be recycled to be used as aggregate in new concrete.
CRDC Global started with seed capital and through loans from the Alliance To End Plastic Waste and its CEO Donald Thompson is motivated by his desire to leave a better world for his grandchildren. They have now shifted to a mix of family office and institutional investors. They have set up 6 small scale facilities during a proof of concept stage, and currently have three large scale facilities running in Pennsylvania, Costa Rica and South Africa. Their vision is to have 20 sites operating within 3 years each producing around 20 thousand tons of synthetic aggregate sand substitute every year.
The company has a global action plan and its board includes individuals from around the globe who meet via Zoom. 27 different countries have expressed interest in starting to use the technology. There is also on-going research about the process at universities in the United States, Costa Rica, South Africa, the UK and Australia.
CRDC Global is cooperating with a major cleanup project in Alaska which has a huge problem with plastic waste, mostly from Asia, crossing the ocean and ending up on that state’s 33 thousand miles of coastline. There is an excellent video presentation about this GoAK project.
There are several models for how this can work. Existing trash hauling players can divert either all their plastic or plastics 3-7 to a CRDC site. They have also worked with a direct consumer connection, often through presentations at schools through which they find motivated children and “soccer moms” and dads who like the idea of helping with the problem. The slogan they teach potential helpers is that most plastic will end up meeting one of three fates– “burnt, buried or built” with the later being a much better outcome.
These voluntary participants are supplied with a supply of “The Bag That Builds” and bring it to collection points – either by bagging all plastics together or better yet separating out easily identifiable 1s and 2s for one bag and another and everything else. In the later scenario CRDC is able to generate income through true recycling of the 1s and 2s to help pay for the overall collection system. Consumers are easily trained to accurately identify things that are made of plastic, and in the process, they get a feeling for just how much plastic they need/use. The CRDC process can use things other than CPG containers, in fact the entire post consumer thermoplastic waste stream. Even the foil/plastic used as a wrapper for something like a granola bar can be handled within this system. “Compostable” plastics or fully biodegradable ones will likely be eliminated during the high heat step but can also be part of RESIN8 if they persist.
If this approach is greatly expanded, it could provide a better end of life alternative for the majority of plastics because there is so much potential demand from the construction side.