Anergy: How to solve the problem of making plastic fantastic again
China is the world’s biggest market for household waste and processed at least half of the planet’s exports of waste plastic, paper and metals in 2016. In January this year, the Chinese government banned imports of millions of tonnes of plastic waste and in doing so presented a huge challenge to global efforts in tackling and recycling the waste. Europe and the U.S. in particular have been reliant on the Chinese, with the UK for example sending 60% of its plastic scrap to China until it shut its doors.
Already, plastic waste in the ocean is set to triple within ten years and has even reached remote Swiss mountains, with 90% of soil found to contain microplastics. According to the WWF, plastic waste in the UK alone will skyrocket by over a million tonnes by 2030. While governments across the world have rallied to limit the production of plastic by calling for a ban on products such as bags and straws, there are still millions of tons of plastic already polluting our oceans and countryside.
Plastic waste is a global problem that is not going away anytime soon and is getting worse.
With no robust plan in place to cope with the closure of the biggest market for waste in the world, restrictions are expected to lead to the stockpiling of plastic waste, more incineration and the risk of more landfill.
The current approach to the plastic problem
The vast majority of plastic is still disposed of by incineration or landfill.
Simply incinerating plastic waste is problematic. Incinerators use air in the process which creates pollution in the forms of dioxin and furan. If the incinerator is inefficient these toxic chemicals can leak into the environment and cause a range of health problems including cancer.
Modern incinerators are designed to avoid leakages and are thought to have, by and large, addressed this problem. With this in mind, using incinerators to burn plastic in order to generate electricity may seem like an answer to the waste problem, but that is until climate change is taken into consideration.
According to Eunomia, the independent sustainability consultancy, when coal is phased out for generating electricity, the incineration of unrecycled waste will be the most CO2 intensive form of production. With governments around the world trying to reduce CO2 emissions, the incineration of unrecycled waste does not make sense unless drastic action is taken to reduce the amount of plastic beforehand.
Looking at the other commonly used ‘solution’ of burying plastic waste in landfill, some argue it is a cheap form of carbon capture and storage: a case of out of sight, out of mind. But landfills are problematic too as plastic cannot be buried without consequence. Over time the waste releases gases, including methane, into the atmosphere and soil.
While arguably better than its incineration alternative, landfill does not solve the plastic waste problem so much as buy time. According to Ian Boyd, the government’s chief environment scientist, landfill, at best, is an opportunity to store plastic waste until it can be dug out at a later date and turned back into a useful product.
Speaking to the UK’s Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Professor Boyd told the Commons that incineration results in CO2 emissions. As a result Boyd also believes that the one way to quickly extinguish the potential value of waste materials is in an incinerator and proposes that waste be stored until the arrival of innovative technologies that can convert them “into something more positively valued”.
Alternative approaches and the HTP solution
Incineration and landfill are not the only two options. Pyrolysis is another approach that has been investigated as a way to deal with the plastic problem.
Pyrolysis is the thermal decomposition of materials in an inert atmosphere, such as a vacuum. While the method can cope with plastic, it is considered unreliable as a means to transform waste as it does not process chemicals properly and creates a lot of tar. The process also produces potentially toxic liquids that can clog up the system.
However pyrolysis does deal with plastic effectively when processed at much higher temperatures and this is where the arrival of the innovative technology sought by Professor Boyd becomes a viable reality.
High Temperature Pyrolysis (HTP) deals with all plastics easily, without creating negative waste products. The gas produced is clean, high quality and can be used again as an energy source. Anergy, the waste transformation company, has pioneered the HTP process and its portable containers can be integrated as part of an existing operation to convert waste to energy, or used standalone, in remote areas that are off grid or without a power infrastructure.
An example of how HTP can benefit emerging countries, and something that is currently under investigation, is the use of the process to transform plastic waste to bottled cooking gas. India is dependent on liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) and is set to surpass China as the biggest importer. Adopting HTP would have huge implications for the country, not just in terms of reducing plastic waste but also in regards to providing a much needed energy source at a greatly reduced cost to help tackle the country’s fuel poverty.
The hindrance of contaminated materials
A big part of the problem of recycling plastic is ensuring the waste is not contaminated with other materials. This is highlighted by the difficulty coffee shops have found themselves in when recycling disposable cups. The reason why the majority of disposable coffee cups are not recycled is due to the mixture of paper and plastic in their inner lining. Designed to make the cups both heat and leakproof, the mixture means that specialist plants are needed to process the disposable cups. Unfortunately, there are not that many of these specialist plants which is why in the UK, for example, 99.75% of disposable cups are not recycled.
The problem extends beyond coffee cups and highlights an issue prevalent in plastic recycling as experienced by Tony Wong. A Chinese plastics trader who imported plastic to Hong Kong, Wong expected to receive only clear bottles but soon discovered that the load was so contaminated with other materials it was too expensive to sort and recycle.
With the world only recycling 14% of plastic waste, a 2017 report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that recycling the remaining amount could create $80bn-$120bn in revenues. However, it is apparent these revenues cannot be achieved without also finding a reliable method to separate the mixed materials that impede the waste from being broken down in the first place.
There are few recycling programs that accept mixed-material packaging, Saperatec being one example of a company who specialise in the process (and who recently developed a technology to separate the adhesive bonds of materials by shredding and putting them through a chemical bath). The wide adoption of similar separation processes before the recycling stage even begins is certainly a big piece of the puzzle. A greater awareness, understanding and implementation of HTP as a recycling technology (as well as an alternative to incineration and landfill practices) presents the final piece.
For the world to overcome its plastic waste problem, it is not a question of developing the innovative waste transformation technologies and waste separation processes required but more a case of raising the profile of existing approaches and implementing them accordingly.
Michael Martella is the CEO of Anergy which is focused on providing innovative energy solutions in a rapidly evolving market