The future of recycling: how innovation and policy will shape the industry

Recycling has been in existence throughout human history. During the ancient period, recycling was needed due to a shortage of resources. For example, in ancient Rome, archaeological studies found pottery recycling operations where broken pots were recycled into new items.  Further, bronze coins were recycled into statues, and metals created into wartime weapons. [1]

During the ancient period (and pre-industrial mass production), recycling was implemented as a need as many resources were not readily available and it was cheaper to reuse and recreate, rather than purchase new supplies.  Recycling increased in times of depression proving it was motivated by economic benefits. [2]

Fast forward thousands of years to industrialisation and the 19th century. The ability to mass produce products resulted in reduction in cost of products, increase in knowledge about health benefits and cleanliness and increase in middle classes (common wealth). Therefore, the economic benefit began to shift from reuse where ever possible to disposable ‘one use’ products; as consumers could have new materials at their demand. 

During this period in 1856 Alexander Parkes patented the first experimental plastic concept in England. From this creation, in 1907, plastic bags were invented; changing the course of recycling forever.  Unlike previous one-use items developed such as aluminium cans and glass bottles, plastic could not yet be recycled. In fact, technologies for plastic recycling were only developed in the 1960’s, more than 100 years after first use. [3] The first plastic recycling plan was established in 1972 in Pennsylvania, USA and since this time, technologies and innovations in recycling of plastic, aluminium, glass, paper and e-waste has progressed at an astonishing rate. 

As the world exceeds an unhealthy waste capacity conundrum, it is comforting to know there is a silver lining. Positive change in waste management is at the forefront of innovation as more government and corporate investment is allocated to supporting recycling facility technologies. Below are the top five trends Container Deposit Systems Australia (CDSA) believe will shape the future of recycling facilities.

1.      Automation and Integration

Automation is arguably the most significant manufacturing trend of our time.  Until recently, one industry that perhaps has not implemented as many automated solutions as others is that of waste management.  Given its unpredictable nature of not knowing what will be disposed, the sector required a skilled workforce[4] including employees collecting recyclables on the street, to experts in the control rooms of waste to energy plants monitoring emissions. However, change is upon the waste and recycling industry. 

Recycling facilities across the globe are beginning to implement automated robotic recycling sorting at container deposit locations.  This includes automated collection, automated sorting and intelligent disposal.  The use of state-of-the-art sorting technology reduces the costs for disposal, increases the cost recovery potential and saves national and international resources.[5]  The industry is currently utilising state-of-the-art technologies such as magnetic separators, eddy current separators, sensor-based sorting (such as near-infrared (NIR)), induction and x-ray sorting systems to drive a greater quantity and quality of material recovery.

Automation further requires systems integration with traditional machines and methods. CDSA is working with local automation experts Sage Automation and Maxwell Engineering to drive automation for the industry and further, build new systems to ensure maximum integration for streamlined operations.

2.      Artificial Intelligence (AI) / Learning Machines

Automation in the recycling industry is heavily linked to the technological progress of Artificial Intelligence. Unlike an automotive line, robots cannot simply repeat the same task over and over again at a recycling facility. They need to learn the difference between materials, shapes and contamination.  An impressive example of new technology is being implemented in the UK through Green Recycling with a Max-AI Autonomous Quality Control robotic sorter. The Max-AI sorter essentially learns from past experiences thanks to its artificial neural network technology, so it can quickly and easily identify recyclables and place them into the appropriate chutes.[6]

This technology both increases accuracy of sorting and increases variety of materials which can be sorted easily.  CDSA is working with local recycling facilities in Australia to implement advanced technologies to drive improved practices.

3.      Legislation and Government Incentives

Whilst innovation is important, government legislation and incentives are key to ensuring industry success. Across Australia there has been a trend of new policies to implement Container Deposit Schemes across the country.  In addition, state governments are implementing a fee on the purchase of plastic bags at major shopping centres and encouraging re-useable items.

In Australia there is much room for government to increase incentive as when compared to other OECD nations, Australia’s container deposit scheme incentives are much lower.   

In addition to incentives, it is expected governments will consider the German model, by which an onus is put on the manufacturing company to ensure its products are recycled. [7]  Germany has a 98.5% recycling rate, proving this system is working.

CDSA see further opportunity for Government investment in new recycling technologies and systems as waste per person continues to increase. 

4.      E-waste solutions

E-waste encompasses all old electrical appliances either in a state of disrepair or simply obsolete. This includes everything from fridges and microwaves to mobile phones and computers.  Due to the rate of technology change and decreasing commodity prices, new products are becoming obsolete in less than 12months and therefore the rate of e-waste is increasing exponential globally.[8]

E-waste provides a large challenge for traditional recycling facilities due to the high manual processing required of all items. This includes pre-processing and dismantling products (separating mechanical elements), removal of and toxic components and then sorting each element (plastic, metal, glass) to the appropriate recycling machine.  This process is not feasible for many recycling facilities and therefore, e-waste is sent to ‘hard rubbish’ or landfill.

Currently, e-waste is a major concern for developed economies. In many countries, companies offer of recycling systems for e-waste products called ‘take back’ systems.  These systems dramatically increase e-waste recycling rates. In China, 28% of e-waste is recycled and Europe achieves 40% e-waste recycling rate.  In Australia, take back systems are yet to be nationally established which results in only 1% of e-waste recycled. [9]

CDS believe e-waste recycling technology will be an important trend in the next 5-10years. New systems and innovative solutions will be required; leading to state-of-the-art machines capable of rapidly managing various e-waste disposals. 

5.      Mass industry growth

Based on the growing need for vast reduction in waste, there is enormous opportunity for the recycling industry to grow. Due to new legislation for container deposit schemes, CDS foresee the recycling industry in Australia to double in size within the next 10 years. This foresight is echoed around the globe.  The European Economic and Social Committee and The Committee Of The Regions on the Thematic Strategy on the Prevention and Recycling of Waste states that recycling provides new global economic opportunities. It was estimated in 2009 that waste management and recycling industries in the EU turned over €95 billion. The sector provides between 1,2 and 1,5 million jobs contributing to meet the EU 2020 objective of 75% employment rate and representing around 1% of GDP.[10]

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation argues that globally, 95% of the value of plastic packaging material, worth $80-120 billion (USD) annually, is lost to the economy. Additionally, plastic packaging generates negative externalities, valued conservatively by UNEP at $40 billion.[11]

The large sector growth foreseen is only possible with new advanced technologies, innovative automation of recycling plants, and, government legislative support.


CDSA is continuously supporting Australian recycling facilities and firms to identify growth opportunities and position their companies for future growth.  CDSA Executive Chairman Brett Duncanson says it’s an important time for the industry, ‘with the rapid change and advancements in recycling technologies, it will be fascinating to see the industry evolve over the next 5-10 years. At CDSA we are supporting clients to navigate through the change and we look forward to contributing to the next generation of recycling innovations.’


About Container Deposit Systems (CDS)

CDSA was formed with a vision to oversee the implementation of improved operational practices in recycling facilities.  The company offers a range of services to recycling depot facilities to drive productivity improvements and transition traditional recycling facilities into modern technically advanced operators.

CDSA achieve this through patented technologies which deliver manufacturing automation to auto-sort materials via a highly sensitive multi-sensor integration.  Systems integrations enable facilities to further gain efficiencies through workflows, materials handling, logistic processes, facility layout and design, customer interaction and data acquisition and management. 

CDS technologies are designed and manufactured in Australia with local partners Sage Automation and Macweld Engineering.