An estimated 8 million tons of mismanaged plastic waste finds its way into our oceans each year. Other reports have suggested that we put almost $8 billion of plastic packaging into landfills in the U.S. each year.
The local cost for collecting, sorting, processing and managing recycling and remediation operations outweighs the potential to create the economies of scale that recycling needs. This is where a range of technologies that reliquify plastic into fuel, turn it into synthetic gas or take the tailings to make refuse-derived fuel pellets come in. These exciting technologies can harness the fuel content in nonrecycled plastics and can help to make a large impact in the reduction of waste polluting our communities and environment. They can work as an integrated approach to managing waste, geared toward creating value from trash—an approach dubbed “sustainable materials management.”
One of the biggest benefits to turning nonrecycled plastic into energy is that it helps everyone from businesses to consumers to governments, as we start to assign value on materials that used to be treated purely as “waste.” When this value is created, a broader sector of the community starts to think about how this material can be captured and put to work, while creating a previously ignored revenue stream, one that was literally discarded, littered or buried.
So why do plastics have an intrinsic value as a fuel source? Plastics are created primarily from energy feedstocks, typically natural gas or oil. The hydrocarbons that make up plastics are embodied in the material itself, essentially making plastics a form of stored energy, which can be turned back into fuel.
A new set of emerging technologies is helping to convert nonrecycled plastics into an array of fuels, including low-sulfur diesel, crude oil, kerosene and industrial feedstocks. Processes vary, but these technologies, known as “plastics-to-fuel,” involve similar steps.
1. Plastics are collected and sorted for recycling. Then the nonrecycled plastics (or residuals) are shipped to a plastics-to-fuel facility, where they are heated in an oxygen-free environment, melted and vaporized into gases. The gases are then cooled and condensed into a variety of useful products. Plastics-to-fuel technologies do not involve combustion.
2. Depending on the specific technology, products can include synthetic crude or refined fuels for home heating, low-sulfur diesel, gasoline or kerosene, or fuel for industrial combined heat and power.
3. Companies sell the petroleum products to manufacturers and industrial users, while fuels can help power cars, buses, ships and planes.
Economics will likely drive adoption of this technology, but value should also be placed on the social and environmental benefit of having plastic waste removed from our communities. By tapping the potential of nonrecycled plastics, the U.S. could support up to 600 plastics-to-fuel facilities and generate nearly 39,000 jobs, resulting in nearly $9 billion in economic output from plastics-to-fuel operations. This does not even include the $18 billion of economic output during the build-out phase. Plastics-to-fuel technologies are increasingly scalable, and can be customized to meet the needs of various economies and geographies, so they do not require huge machines.
On a macro level, the low-sulfur content of plastic means that air pollution can be reduced when used as a fuel for boats, machinery, generators and vehicles.
Plastics-to-fuel technologies are expected to be particularly helpful in places where fuel prices are high and landfill options are limited, such as island nations, for example. Communities now have the potential to create some of their own fuel locally, providing economic and environmental benefits, while removing a portion of the waste stream that potentially causes harm to oceans, rivers, waterways and reefs. Any city, not just islands, with a plastic waste problem should be considering the use of plastic-to-fuel technologies as a way to use these materials more efficiently, while reducing the waste loading impacts of that community.
The “2015 Plastics-to-Fuel Developers Guide” and the “Cost Estimating Tool for Prospective Project Developers” were designed to help potential investors, developers and community leaders determine whether this rapidly growing family of technologies could be a good fit for meeting local waste management needs and supplying local demand for the relevant commodities. Available at no cost, these tools provide, for the first time, an exploration of available commercial technologies, operational facilities and issues to consider when developing a business plan.
Plastics—even used plastics—are valuable materials that can create new products or fuels and energy. But not if we bury them in landfills or dump them in our waterways. Plastics-to-fuel, along with gasification and refuse-derived fuel, is one of several technologies that can play a role in converting nonrecycled plastics into valuable energy. Because no two communities are the same, it is important for individual regions or municipalities to understand which technology is likely to work best for them.
I hope that these new tools will help expedite and facilitate the expansion of these technologies, which offer one of the newest, most comprehensive solutions for removing plastic waste not normally recycled.
Editor’s note: This article was written in collaboration with Steve Russell, vice president at the American Chemistry Council.