Taiwan rethinks raw material
This autumn, Taiwan hosted its first trade exhibition and conference dedicated to the circular economy. Charles Newman reports on the innovations that reflect this new focus on managing the flow of waste materials into new products
East Asia has long been established as the world’s factory, responsible for the production of a major proportion of manufactured goods. Inevitably, this requires a vast amount of raw material inputs, which, among other things, explains why such a large amount of our recyclable material is shipped there, using the very containers that delivered the manufactured products here in the first place.
Taiwan, one of the engine rooms in this story, has provided a crucible for steady innovation in product design and techniques that make more use of waste resources and reduce the need for virgin material.
A major step on this journey was the decision to hold Circular Economy Taiwan, its first exhibition and conference on the circular economy, to showcase these developments for international businesses.
Addressing delegates at the opening, James Huang, Chairman of the Taiwan External Trade Development Council (TAITRA) that organised the event, observed that the country ‘lacks a lot of the natural resources it needs, creating a need to embrace the circular economy’.
The event was officially opened by the country’s President, Dr Tsai Ing-wen, who highlighted the Taiwanese Government’s commitment to maximising the use of waste resources. She said that embracing the circular economy would bring results in many industries and enthusiastically cited the example of how 16 of the 32 teams at the 2018 FIFA World Cup wore kit that was made in Taiwan from recycled plastic bottles. Reflecting the industriousness of the island, a wide range of innovations and their producers were on display. Here is a selection of some that caught the eye.
The role of government leadership
Perhaps most prominent has been the role played by Taiwan’s Environment Protection Agency (EPA) in driving forward solutions and activity, claiming its share of credit for a municipal solid waste recycling rate that now stands at over 52 per cent. According to last year’s report by Eunomia, currently only Germany has a higher rate.
However, what is unusual is its powerful cross-cutting remit, from managing regulation and environment quality – similar to the comparable agencies in other countries, such as the Environment Agency in the UK – while also playing a market development role for recyclate, including the management of a Recycling Fund to support different recycling activities, including innovations.
Among the companies showcased by EPA, UWin Nanotech’s patented techniques for efficiently recovering gold, silver, palladium and other valuable metals from printed circuit boards (PCBs) are rightly already attracting a lot of interest from companies in China, the US and Eastern Europe. Unlike the established technique for doing this using high temperatures, UWin’s process involves washing PCBs with chemicals, then running a current through the solution. The metals are subsequently collected through an electroplating technique.
This process contrasts sharply with current approaches currently dominating the market for recovering value from electronic waste, reducing the use of energy and the release of harmful by-products that characterise recovery elsewhere, such as effluents containing cyanide.
Also on show was a process developed by Taiwan’s Industrial Technology Research Institute for completely recapturing and recycling all materials from end-of- life LCD displays through a procedure in many ways analogous to that used for recovering metals from PCBs, involving the use of chemicals to wash and concentrate the materials returning it for use in making further LCD displays with no loss in quality.
An alternate use of the recovered liquid crystal demonstrated was its application in smart windows, which makes use of the photoelectric properties of the material to create windows that can be switched between opaque and transparent modes.
The recovered LCD glass is itself modified to become nano-porous glass adsorbent material used for adsorbing heavy metals more than 50 mg/g. This technique is used for removing contaminants from soil and water.
Meeting the plastic challenge
Inevitably, new approaches for managing the growing concern that surrounds the use of plastic were on display. Among them was the synthetic textile company Far Eastern New Century, which currently produces over two million tonnes of polyester each year.
Recognising the need to transition to a more sustainable model, New Century has developed techniques for recycling waste polymers. The company’s new technique can help recycle polyester from all types of used textiles, including mixed streams, through a dissolving process using non-complex solvents. Dyes and other polymers are filtered out and the resulting polyester recycled back into clothing, such as the football jerseys used by half the teams in the 2018 World Cup as part of its partnership with Adidas.
One aspect of this relationship with the sportswear company has been the creation of a special product line for trainers using plastic reclaimed from the coasts around the Maldives (including fishing nets and PET bottles). The collaboration recycled over 1,000 tonnes in 2017, with targets in place to significantly increase this as part of Adidas’ focus on raising awareness of issues surrounding ocean plastics.
In a similar vein, another innovation on show at the expo was SCafe’s use of waste coffee grounds to create fabrics for outdoor clothing. Using a patented process, coffee grounds are added to fabric yarn, which alters the shape of the filament. The resulting fabric has some particular enhanced properties, reducing the amount of sweat the garment will absorb and reducing the drying time, which makes the material (sold under the brand name of SINGTEX) suitable for sports clothing.
Also among the highlights of plastic substitutes was a packaging substitute material developed by eTouch Innovation Company called Fiber Particulate Composite (FPC), which Gordon Yu, the company’s Chairman, was at pains to stress was also an alternative to the use of polylactic acid (the base chemical used in bioplastics).
“Agricultural waste material, such as rice and wheat husks, is combined with what we call compatibiser, which is a converted starch with no man-made chemicals added,” explained Yu. He demonstrated a wide variety of products that used this, from food packaging trays and coffee cups to flip flops, bike pedals and golf tees. The latter he claimed “degrades in six months to a year, to become fertiliser”.
Developing new markets for recyclate
Continuing the theme of using waste resources for sporting apparel, tyre reprocessor Enrestec displayed its industrial process for creating a raw material to be used in the manufacture of wetsuits. The company’s factory separates vehicle tyres into their constituent parts: oil, carbon black, metal and cotton lint. Although the use of oil as a fuel in the plant counts against its environmental credentials, the application of a specialised pyrolysis technique to capture carbon black opens up new markets for waste tyres as a raw material. This carbon black, a fine powder, is used by Sheico, one of the world’s leading diving-suit manufacturers, as the company aims to reduce the environmental footprint of the wetsuits for brands such as Patagonia.
Another noteworthy application in Taipei was the innovative use of glass from material recovery facilities (MRFs) – though it’s worth noting MRF material is much less contaminated in Taiwan due to the lack of compaction in recycling collections. Once the glass has been separated and cleaned, it is combined with a carbon-based forming agent at high temperatures to produce a construction brick. The resulting brick, sold under the Anxin brand name, is one eighth of the weight of a conventional brick with a significant uplift in conventional insulation characteristics.
A circular future
Although the concept of the circular economy is nothing new, it’s fair to say that the approach has only come of age over the past decade. It’s no surprise to discover that a country known as one of the world’s factories has perhaps a keener sense of the value in adopting this thinking, as it seeks to satisfy its voracious appetite for raw materials at a time when sustainability demands we look for solutions from waste. While many of the purported innovations on show were nothing new, in many cases it seems that necessity is the mother of invention.