To Transform the Plastic Crisis: Invest in Waste-to-Energy Solutions

(This is part of the series for 7 Main Areas of Focus to Transform the Plastic Crisis)

This is a difficult topic to discuss as it doesn’t win any popularity contests on any side of the plastics view. And yet the more the plastic pollution issue is discussed the more these technologies are developed and become part of the discussion.

First, the premise is that every plastic product that exists today, and those that will be created in the next few years until a feasible, viable, and sustainable alternative is found will have an “end-of-life” eventually. Whether it is in 1 year, 5 years or 10, there will be an end of it’s usefulness. There is an undeniable need to work on reaching the ultimate society where we have no plastics — beginning from single-use, however until then we already have over nine billion tons of it to consider.

Second — we have two conditions that almost everybody agree on: a) plastics don’t belong in the ocean and they cause harm, and b) carbon, and other toxin emissions are harmful to the air we breathe as well as our planet’s overall health.

There are technologies that are being developed today where there is no carbon emission and the captured plastic, and other waste gets turned into energy. Clearly, this doesn’t get us into a circular economy, so it’s the very last resort — it can be considered as an out-put from a circular economy until as a global community we’re able to handle plastic alternatives that can dissolve and biodegrade without any human intervention.

Waste-to-Energy Plants

Sierra Energy for instance is able to turn waste into energy with what they claim is 0 carbon footprint. As the technology is very new these claims have to be closely monitored, improved, and sustained, however based on current claims a solution does seem viable. On the other hand why do we have to consider waste-to-energy plants at all in the first place? Because due to its nature plastics that exist today have a limited number of times they can be used and/or recycled. After a while it turns into near pulp becoming useless. At this point, and having harvested as much use of the plastic as possible, instead of burying it in a landfill or risking it going into the ocean turning it into “clean” energy is the last resort option that is most earth friendly that we know of today.

The benefit of using facilities like Sierra Energy would be to avoid landfills and the production of methane. It would be to ensure that at it’s very final stages the old plastics are actually captured and kept from the environment. It would mean to maximize the use of a resource, we’ve invested to create decades ago, with a minimal footprint.

Waste-to-Fuel Plants

Another solution is to turn plastics into fuel as researchers in Purdue University have found — which can be considered as another form of “waste-to-energy.”

A couple of innovators in France also created the “Chrysalis” machine — where 1kg of plastics can be turned into 1 liter of fuel within 80 minutes.

Understandably this raises the concern that if we did have such a technology developed it would mean continuing on the use of single-use plastics and plastic production as is. And this is not the case. Plastic production in itself is not sustainable — and the production activity itself creates the carbon footprint we don’t need. The key condition of this technology is the plastics that already exist, and that will not be replaced within the next 10–15–20 years… for use in medical supplies, car dashboards, bumpers, tires, etc.

Looking at the product life-cycle holistically requires asking the question of what happens to a backpack that has been created from old bags and packaging, after that backpack has served it’s life purpose. What about the refrigerators and tires, toys, electronics and their accessories, etc. The plastic issue is beyond just straws, cups and bottles or packaging. What about the stuff we clean-up out of the ocean during beach and coastal cleanups?

While looking at the issue we also need to look at feasible, attainable, and sustainable solutions for both the future and what is already here.

Future investments and research is required to scale these solutions as well as develop them so any toxic emissions are eliminated from their life-cycle.

To remove plastics from being a threat — we need to consider the very last resort and address the very uncomfortable fact for what is already here today: end-of-life.

Please leave a constructive and positive comment moving the conversation forward for any viable alternatives to future waste-to-energy plants or waste-to-fuel processes.

<< Previous: “5 — Invest in Local Recycling Infrastructure Globally

Ocean Actionist. Circular Economy Consultant. Reuse and Plastic recycling SME. Entrepreneur. Speaker. Underwater Photographer. NYC.

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