What Is The Recyclability Rate In CEA?

What can be recycled and what cannot, from biomass to the various materials used?

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Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) facilities offer highly efficient and sustainable methods of cultivating crops indoors, utilizing hydroponics, aquaponics, and aeroponics. However, according to some estimates, the waste produced in these systems needs to be more utilized, with only 10% repurposed.

Repurposing organic waste into compost or energy can increase income and reduce waste. The recyclability of equipment used in CEA facilities varies widely, and the industry must prioritize sustainable practices and explore recycling and reuse options to minimize its environmental impact.

As the CEA sector grows, addressing these waste management and recycling challenges becomes increasingly crucial to maintain a positive image and ensure the industry's long-term viability.

Repurposing Biomass Produced In CEA

CEA facilities, or Controlled Environment Agriculture facilities, are a type of agriculture system that allows for cultivating crops indoors using various technologies such as hydroponics, aquaponics, and aeroponics. While these systems are highly efficient and sustainable, they generate some waste through plugs, mats, or waste from production. Unfortunately, according to Albert Lin, CEO & founder of Vegbed, only 10% of the waste produced is repurposed by CEA facilities, with the rest being thrown away.

Repurposing organic waste into compost is a viable solution for reducing waste and producing a valuable product. The cost of producing compost varies from $20 to $50 per ton, depending on the scale of the operation and the quality of the finished product. However, selling the compost can generate between $20 and $60 per ton, depending on the quality of the compost. Organic waste can cost farmers up to $40 per ton when considering transportation, fees, labor, and equipment. Therefore, composting organic waste is a practical solution for generating additional income while reducing waste.

Organic waste can also be repurposed into energy. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, one ton of municipal solid waste (MSW) can produce approximately 550 kWh of electricity. This means that around 1.8 tons of MSW would be needed to produce 1,000 kWh, which is equivalent to the monthly electricity usage of an average U.S. household. However, the profitability and feasibility of an organic waste-to-energy project depend on various factors such as the type and quantity of waste, the technology used, and local energy market conditions. Therefore, a detailed feasibility study is necessary to determine the potential of organic waste-to-energy projects.

Machine & Other Equipment Used In CEA Recyclability:

In general, comprehensive data on the recyclability of equipment used in Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) facilities is not readily available. However, by examining the equipment's materials, we can estimate which components are likely to be recyclable and which are not.

Overall, there is a prevalent use of a range of plastics in CEA, from Trays to tubbings and polytunnels. Plastic can be found everywhere, and depending on the type and the country of origin, certain plastics can be more easily recyclable than others. Recycling programs and accepted materials in the United States often differ based on local regulations and available facilities. Despite these variations, several common types of plastics are typically recyclable across the country. These plastics are identified by their Resin Identification Codes (RICs), assigned numbers from 1 to 7, and displayed within a triangle of chasing arrows on the product. Some of the more widely recycled plastics include PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate), commonly found in beverage bottles and food packaging; HDPE (High-Density Polyethylene), frequently used in milk jugs and detergent containers; and PP (Polypropylene), present in yogurt containers and medicine bottles.

However, not all plastics enjoy the same level of recyclability. For example, materials like LDPE (Low-Density Polyethylene), used in grocery bags and cling wrap, are only accepted by some facilities. In contrast, others, such as PS (Polystyrene) or mixed plastics, face logistical and cost challenges that limit their recycling potential. A recent report from Greenpeace pointed out how plastic isn’t recycled, as only 5-6% of plastics are recycled in 2021, down from 9% in 2014, as the companies recycling the plastic cannot cope with the increased use. The US DOE estimates the amount of plastic waste in the United States is 44 million metric tons. Using a slightly different methodology, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency put the figure at 32.2 million metric tons in 2019.

  • HVAC systems: These systems may contain metals such as copper, aluminum, and steel, which can be recycled. However, it's important to note that some components of HVAC systems, such as refrigerants, can be hazardous and require proper disposal. Unfortunately, data on the recycling rates of HVAC systems used explicitly in CEA facilities are not readily available. Still, there are industry efforts to improve the recycling of HVAC systems.

  • Pumps: Pumps may contain metals such as cast iron and stainless steel, which are recyclable. However, some pumps may also contain plastic components, which may be challenging to recycle depending on the type of plastic used. Unfortunately, data on the recycling rates of pumps used in CEA facilities are not readily available.

  • Tubes & fittings: Tubes and fittings used in CEA facilities may contain metals such as copper and stainless steel, which are recyclable. However, some tubes and fittings may also contain plastic components, which may be challenging to recycle depending on the type of plastic used. Unfortunately, data on the recycling rates of tubes and fittings used in CEA facilities are not readily available.

  • Control panels: Control panels may contain a combination of metals and plastics, which can be recycled if adequately separated. However, recycling electronic waste, including control panels, can be challenging due to hazardous materials and the difficulty of separating components.

  • Towers/Trays used: Towers and trays used in CEA facilities may be made of various materials, including plastic and metal. While some materials, such as metals, are recyclable, others, such as certain plastics, may be difficult to recycle.

  • Glasshouses: Glass used in glasshouses may be tempered or laminated, making recycling difficult. However, if the glass is single-pane, it could be recycled.

  • Polytunnels: Polytunnels used in CEA facilities may be made of various plastics, including polyethylene and PVC. While some plastics are recyclable, others may be difficult to recycle due to the type of plastic used or contamination.

Recycling is generally a more cost-effective and environmentally friendly option for many materials, including metals like aluminum, copper, and steel, which have high market values. Similarly, recycling paper and cardboard are typically cheaper due to the increased efficiency and widespread availability of recycling processes. PET and HDPE plastics also benefit from cost-effective recycling solutions, as there is a strong demand for recycled materials and a well-established recycling infrastructure for these plastics.

On the other hand, recycling electronic waste can be more expensive, given the complexity of separating components and the need to handle hazardous materials. Despite these challenges, the environmental benefits of recycling electronic waste are significant and should be noticed. Recycling costs for mixed plastics and contaminated materials can increase due to sorting and processing difficulties. Disposal may be a cheaper option in some cases, hindering the environmental advantages of recycling these materials.

Is LED Recycled? 

Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs) are commonly used in CEA facilities to provide efficient and targeted plant lighting. LEDs are considered more energy-efficient and have a longer lifespan than traditional lighting sources such as incandescent bulbs. However, the recyclability of LEDs is a complex issue, and several factors must be considered.

Firstly, LEDs contain various materials, including metals such as copper, silver, and gold, and various types of plastic. While some of these materials are recyclable, others may require specialized recovery processes. Additionally, LEDs may contain small amounts of hazardous materials, such as lead or arsenic, which must be handled and disposed of appropriately.

Secondly, recycling LEDs can be challenging due to their small size and difficulty separating the different materials used. While there are currently recycling facilities that can recover some of the valuable metals used in LEDs, the process is still relatively new, and the capacity for recycling LEDs is limited.

Furthermore, the lifespan of LEDs in CEA facilities is typically longer than traditional lighting sources, meaning that a smaller volume of LEDs is being disposed of compared to other equipment types. However, this also means less incentive to invest in LED recycling infrastructure.

Overall, while LEDs used in CEA facilities may contain recyclable materials, recycling these materials can be challenging due to the small size and complexity of the components. Additionally, the current volume of LEDs being disposed of in CEA facilities is relatively small, which may limit the investment in recycling infrastructure for this specific equipment type. Nonetheless, efforts are being made to improve the recycling of LEDs, and CEA facilities must manage their equipment responsibly and explore recycling options where possible.

Other Consumables 

Protection gear is essential to health and safety practices in CEA facilities. This gear includes gloves, masks, and coveralls to protect workers from hazards such as chemicals, biological agents, and physical injuries. While these items are necessary for worker safety, their recyclability can be complex.

Firstly, the materials used in protection gear can vary depending on the type of gear and the manufacturer. Some materials, such as latex and nitrile gloves, can be recycled, while others, such as polypropylene coveralls, may need to be more easily recyclable. Moreover, some materials may also contain hazardous chemicals or substances requiring specialized disposal.

Secondly, protection gear may become contaminated during use, further complicating its recyclability. While some materials can be decontaminated and reused, others may need to be disposed of as hazardous waste, depending on the level of contamination.

Furthermore, the cost and logistics of recycling protection gear may also be a factor to consider. Depending on the volume of gear used, the cost of recycling may outweigh the benefits, and recycling infrastructure may only be available in some regions.

Containers or boxes used to sell produce in CEA facilities are usually made of cardboard or plastic. These materials are recyclable, and their recyclability may depend on the specific material and its condition after use.

Cardboard boxes used to sell products can typically be recycled easily, provided that they are not contaminated with food waste or other substances that can compromise the quality of the recycling process. Additionally, some facilities may need to remove plastic liners or labels before recycling the cardboard boxes.

Plastic containers used to sell products can also be recycled, but the recycling process can be more complex due to the different types of plastics used. For example, some plastics, such as polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and high-density polyethylene (HDPE), are more easily recyclable than others, such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Additionally, plastic containers may need to be cleaned and sorted before recycling to ensure the quality of the recycled material.

Sometimes, containers or boxes used to sell products may be reusable. For example, some facilities may use plastic containers that can be sanitized and reused multiple times before being recycled or disposed of. Reusable containers can reduce waste and be more cost-effective long-term, although they require additional investment and management.

Overall, containers or boxes used to sell produce in CEA facilities can be recyclable or reusable, depending on the specific material and its condition. Therefore, CEA facilities must prioritize sustainable packaging practices and explore recycling and reuse options to reduce waste and minimize its environmental impact.


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