BOSTON: Billions of tons of waste are generated per year across a diverse mix of waste streams - including municipal solid waste, plastic waste, organic waste, and waste textiles and tires - due to the linear nature of today's economy.
However, according to the team at Lux Research, a leading provider of tech-enabled research and advisory services for technology innovation, there is growing interest and innovation in utilizing waste streams to create high-value products and a circular economy.
A new report from Lux, Waste Conversion Innovations to Enable a Circular Economy, defines a circular economy as converting waste to either a virgin-quality feedstock or another higher-value product. The report details the challenges and opportunities in converting waste to fuels, chemicals, materials, feed, fertilizer, food, cellulose pulp, and carbon black. Lux goes on to provide an analysis of emerging waste conversion technologies across waste streams.
Technologies that convert waste to its material precursors, such as chemical- and solvent-based recycling (of both plastic and textile waste), are at an early stage. However, they can provide significant value as bolt-on technologies that recirculate industrial waste back into production as post-consumer waste management capabilities ramp up, said Gihan Hewage, Analyst at Lux Research. The diversity of waste is a challenge, but each waste stream has innovation potential. These innovations, paired with improvements in sensing and sorting as well as product design that strike a better balance between in-use performance and end of life, are the keys to making the shift to a circular economy.
Below are snapshots of the current gaps and conversation developments in progress to manage specific waste streams
Municipal solid waste (MSW) - As landfills reach capacity, efforts to commercialize gasification technologies are ramping up to prevent incineration. Companies that dominate the MSW conversion landscape have not developed overly unique technologies, but have scaled up more rapidly than the competition, allowing them to secure strong partnerships.
Plastic waste - Scrutiny on accumulation has led to numerous efforts to use plastic waste as a feedstock for materials and fuels. Companies focused on converting waste PET to monomers dominate the waste plastic startup landscape.
Organic waste - Ineffective organic waste management is leading to higher-value conversion technology development. While this waste cannot be converted to its original form, developers are working to produce high-value products like animal feed, polymers, fertilizer, fiber, biofuels, and other food products.
Waste textiles and tires - Inconsistent collection has led to recycling technologies with high impurity tolerances. Textile recycling is still in its infancy and is hindered by blended fabrics. Solvents that can recover the polyester component could be added within the next five years to recover a larger portion of the waste stream. Because tire pyrolysis is an established technology, startup activity in the space has focused on either reducing costs or modifying the process to recover high-value chemicals.
Lux's Waste Conversion Innovations to Enable a Circular Economy report dives into additional details about the incumbent technologies, gaps, challenges, innovations, and innovators in each waste stream. It also includes a list of waste conversion technology developers for every waste stream, along with the Lux Take on the market potential for each.
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