Class-based separations of mixed solid-liquid systems with condensable solvent washing and extraction: The dilemma of pizza box recycling

H Lee and C Stetson and CJ Orme and MW Kuns and JA Lacey and L Vega- Montoto and SW Snyder and JR Wilbanks and JL Bowen and AD Wilson, JOURNAL OF CLEANER PRODUCTION, 426, 139080 (2023).

DOI: 10.1016/j.jclepro.2023.139080

As primary feedstocks deplete across the world, raw material extraction becomes increasingly expensive. Awareness of the environmental impact of primary extraction has motivated the development of energy- and reagent- efficient methods for material reuse. This work confronts an emblematic challenge of modern recycling: the soiled pizza box. While the fibers constituting corrugated cardboard are generally recyclable, pizza contaminants such as sauces and oils complicate their reuse, resulting in municipal prohibitions on the recycling of used pizza boxes in cardboard recycling streams and a representative of 275 kg/year per US household of food waste that is directed to landfill. This challenge is common to many materials, and engineering strategies must be developed to tackle complex/mixed feedstocks. To address the mixed composition of the pizza box (and similar materials), an environmentally benign, non- toxic organic solvent is applied to remove and fractionate components from mixed materials. The solvent employed in this process, dimethyl ether (DME), is a condensable hygroscopic gas, which facilitates its removal and recovery for reuse. The results of this study indicate that 1) DME is capable of solubilizing and extracting components from soiled cardboard and other materials, (resulting in cardboard drier than new/unused cardboard) facilitating its recycling, and 2) the DME-soluble components of the system phase separate into aqueous and fatty acid/oil fractions (potentially similar to 27.5 kg/year per US household). Condensable solvent-driven washing and extraction enable the efficient separation of multiple intermediate product streams, suggesting a pathway to enable technology development necessary for achieving clean production in a circular economy.

Return to Publications page