Fiery Fury, Not Hide and Bury

Great Scott! Instead of utilising this fuel from the future, we’re missing opportunities by burying plastic waste.

Contributed article by Doug Woodring and Steve Russell.


We all know plastics deliver many benefits that make modern life possible. They help keep our foods fresher longer, reduce the weight of our cars so we use less fuel, insulate our homes so we use less energy, and keep countless medical supplies safe and sterile. While some plastics are recycled, far too many are not — and end up buried in landfills or littered where they can contaminate delicate marine ecosystems.  

But some exciting new technologies that can harness the fuel content in non-recycled plastics could help remedy this. These technologies work as part of an integrated approach to managing waste geared toward creating value from trash — an approach dubbed sustainable materials management.

Cash from trash

One of the biggest benefits to this approach is that it helps everyone — from businesses to consumers to government — by putting a value to materials, based on its potential to provide energy, that used to be considered “waste.” When this value is created, a much broader sector of the community starts to think about how this material can be captured and put to work, both to reduce the waste load for the city and to create a revenue stream from that which was previously being discarded, littered or buried.

Why do plastics have an intrinsic value as a fuel source? Plastics are created primarily from energy feed stocks, 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 into a liquid fuel source.  It therefore makes sense that people are asking how to keep more of this valuable fuel as an economic asset in the product’s “afterlife”.

One way, of course, is to recycle plastics whenever one can. Today, recycling technologies in many countries can reprocess common types of plastics: bottles, containers, cups, caps, lids and so on. Even many flexible plastics, such as bags and wraps, can be recycled in certain markets.  Unfortunately large scale plastic recycling/reprocessing does not currently exist in Hong Kong for a number of reasons. In the past, it was easy for Hong Kong to export its waste to China – which is no longer the case. Locally, there has been no fee on waste charging for municipal solid waste. Furthermore, Hong Kong’s collection and sorting system is not yet advanced enough to capture, sort, purify and optimize the use of recycled plastic.  

Given that, the question remains about how to deal with plastics that can’t be economically recycled because the local infrastructure does not allow for full recycling. They still contain embodied energy and largely untapped value as a new potential fuel source.  

Plastic as the new source of low-sulfur diesel

A new set of emerging technologies is helping to convert non-recycled plastics into an array of fuels, including low-sulfur diesel, crude oil, kerosene and industrial feed stocks. Processes vary, but these technologies, known as “plastics-to-fuel,” involve similar steps.

  1. Plastics are collected and sorted for recycling. Then the non-recycled 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. For example, by tapping the potential of non-recycled 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.  Hong Kong’s roughly 1,500 tons/day of plastic going to landfill could be treated in the same way.

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.

The promise of plastics-to-fuel is particularly exciting as an option to recover materials that today may be buried, or in some regions, illegally dumped or burned in open pits due to inadequate waste management infrastructure. The new facilities would be able to local revenue for a material that we treat, wrongly, as having zero value.  

Cleaner Fuel, Cleaner Environment

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 island nations where fuel prices are high and landfill options are limited. 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 their waterways, reefs, and tourism.  In reality, however, any city with a plastic waste problem should be considering the use of plastic-to-fuel technologies to use these materials more efficiently while reducing the waste loading impacts on their community.

These are just some of the reasons that our two organisations — one representing America’s plastics makers, the other a nonprofit organization dedicated to a trash-free ocean — teamed up to create two new tools aimed at helping communities around the globe evaluate their potential to adopt plastics-to-fuel technologies.

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 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 things to consider when developing a business plan.

We first announced the tools at the fourth annual Plasticity Forum held in Cascais, Portugal, in early June. Each year, the Plasticity Forum draws hundreds of global thought leaders in the areas of policy, design, innovation, waste management, retail/brand management and more.

Earlier this month, we introduced the tools at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation’s “Building Better Cities” Forum in Cebu, Philippines. Today, banks and investors are reviewing the online tools to evaluate investment opportunities.

Plastics — even used plastics — are valuable materials that can be used to create new products or fuels and energy. But not if we bury them in landfills or dump them in our waterways. Plastics-to-fuel is one of several technologies that can play a role in converting non-recycled plastics into valuable energy (gasification and refuse-derived fuel are two others). 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.

We hope that these new tools will help expedite and facilitate the expansion of these technologies, which really do offer one of the newest, most comprehensive solutions for removing plastic waste which would not normally be recycled.   

Follow all of the Expert Voices issues and debates — and become part of the discussion — on Facebook, Twitter and Google+. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on LiveScience.com.

Doug Woodring

Doug Woodring

Director and Co-founder at Ocean Recovery Alliance
Co-Founder of the non-profit organization Ocean Recovery Alliance and the Plasticity Forum. The group is the first to have worked with both UNEP and the World Bank on plastic pollution issues, each based around two Clinton Global Initiative programs. He has an MBA from The Wharton School, a Masters in International Economics and Relations from Johns Hopkins (SAIS), and a BA from U.C. Berkeley. He has worked in Asia for over 20 years, and is a UNEP Climate Hero. He speaks frequently at events, as well as writes articles on environmental topics. One example is this article for The Economist on the Broken Windows Theory in relation to water pollution.
Doug Woodring
Steve Russell

Steve Russell

ACCPD leads efforts to “reduce, reuse, recycle and recover” more plastics through outreach, education and access to advances in technology.
Steve Russell

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