Can Plastic Find A Sustainable Destination?

Plastic is probably the most non-green material anyone can mention straight off the top of their heads. But perhaps the damned material can be put to some good, sustainable use after all.

In the United States plastics are made primarily from natural gas. More recently, a growing number of new technologies started to turn non-recycled plastics into crude oil, electricity and other fuels. Many of these technologies are already being implemented on a commercial scale in Europe, Canada and Asia.

One company that promises to turn plastic into energy, and do this cleanly, is JBI’s Plastic2Oil. The company emphasizes that its process results in ultra-low sulfur diesel that contains 15 parts per million (ppm), which qualifies it for the label ‘clean diesel’ since its sulfur content has been reduced by more than 95%.

Patent is still pending on Plastic2Oil’s P2O process but in July JBI announced it had entered an agreement with Rock-Tenn to convert mill by-product waste into fuel using Plastic2Oil’s trademark technology. The agreement gave JBI exclusive rights to mine plastic from RocTenn’s plastic-only monofill sites for several years.

JBI was founded by John Bordynuik, who noticed that plastic waste was growing while working at the Ontario Legislature back in the 1990s. He saw the problem piling up, literally. In the US alone, over 30 million tons of plastic are produced per year and only about seven percent of it is recycled, according to 2009 figures.

“Because of the new "disposable mentality" that came with plastic containers, we now are navigating the fallout of an enormous waste plastic problem, on a global scale. It's complex, it's far-reaching and it's intimately tied to politics and economics”, JBI says on its website. Mr Bordynuik recently had the opportunity to present his vision at the TEDxBuffalo conference.

The company is confident that its process has the ability to transform the 93% of unsorted, unwashed waste plastic that is currently diverted or destined for local landfills into clean, low-sulfur fuel. It says it’s commercially viable, could bring economic benefits and help government and organizations deal with waste plastic recycling challenges.

Meanwhile, a new study conducted by the Earth Engineering Center (EEC) of Columbia University and sponsored by the American Chemistry Council said there’s huge energy potential in non-recycled plastics. In the U.S. it could provide enough fuel for six million cars annually, or 52 million MWh of electricity, which would be enough to power 5.2 million households per year.

"Plastics have a significantly higher energy value than coal," said Prof. Marco J. Castaldi of the Earth and Environmental Engineering Department of Columbia University and Associate Director of EEC. "Capturing the energy value of non-recycled plastics – and municipal solid waste in general – makes good sense because it provides a good domestic form of energy while minimizing impacts on the environment."

One of the questions that these plastic-to-fuel technologies raise is whether using plastic as a raw material for fuel could increase demand for the stuff, and thus perpetuate the cycle. But it’s also a fact that despite plastic bag bans being implemented in many places, the material is not going to disappear any time soon. In which case, turning it into energy could prove better than taking it to landfills. The jury is out on this one.

Image credit: Plastic2Oil