Just when you thought plummeting prices for polyethylene (PE), the most frequently used plastic resin, as well as naptha, the crude oil most commonly used in the production of household plastics, would somehow diminish China’s worldwide dominance in plastic manufacturing, in reality, these factors have only fortified it. In defiance of an economic slowdown, Asia’s demand for plastic resin continues along it’s upward trend, signaling an alarm for environmental groups worried about how additional plastic waste will be disposed of.
More Plastic Means More Waste
Thanks to the ever expanding e-commerce sector, plastic manufacturing firms should only expect to increase their output of plastic packaging worldwide, adding yet another dilemma for countries already having a difficult time managing their existing leftover plastic.
In a recent interview with Reuters, Nicholas Mallos, director of the U.S.-based environmental group Ocean Conservancy, stated that “mismanaged plastic waste is an unintended consequence of rapid economic development. As incomes rise, people increasingly rely on consumer goods – and as a result, more plastic waste is generated.”
It’s no secret that with higher demand for plastic, comes a higher propensity for plastic waste,however, thanks to new technology, green groups such as Mallos’ need not lose sleep over finding the right solutions to handle increases in a plastics industry expected to reach the $38.5 billion mark by 2020.
The Process of Converting Plastic Waste To Energy
Through a system known as “plastics-to-fuel”, companies and recycling firms have slowly begun combating plastic waste by breaking down plastic resin from both recycled and non-recycled plastic into gas, which can then be converted into re-usable crude oil and feed-stock for other products.
Expected to create an estimated 39,000 jobs and $9 billion in expected economic output if 600 facilities were established in the U.S. alone, plastic-to-fuel technology has the potential to revolutionize the plastic manufacturing and recycling industries in a way that conventional methods could only dream of.
Although machinery may vary, there are few fundamental steps to consider when using the plastic-to-fuel process, which can involve specialized equipment and chemistry know-how.
Before plastic waste can be considered for “plastic-to-fuel” treatment, it is first sorted and categorized based on usability. Once waste has been deemed a non-recyclable, it is then transported to a facility for further refinement.
- Through a process known as pyrolysis, plastic waste is melted to it’s boiling point, without oxygen or combustion, and then broken down even further into a vapor form.
- Using specialized machinery that can vary based on facility, the process continues by converting the vapor remnants into a variety of refined fuels and crude oils including, but not limited to, fuels for heating/power, kerosene, gasoline, diesel, and others.
- Once fully converted, businesses can sell crude oil based products to plastic manufacturers in a wide range of industries, saving potentially billions of dollars for economies, and creating thousands of new jobs in theory.
Here’s a video from the American Chemistry Council showcasing an illustrated version of the waste to energy process in motion:
Is Plastic-To-Fuel A Suitable Technology For the Future?
If the potential for billions in economic growth and countless new jobs combined with emerging markets in need of plastic packaging isn’t incentive enough for companies to at least consider plastic to fuel technology, then perhaps the the factoring in of monumental plastic waste hasn’t sunk it yet.
Just look at China, which accounts for almost half of all (PE) polyethylene plastic resin consumption worldwide, despite a sub-par waste collection and management system that continues to allow plastic waste to enter the environment on a record scale.
If expanding countries such as these and the U.S. continue to use outdated methods, such as landfills and random dumping techniques to alleviate their excessive plastic waste problems, then the future of re-usable plastic manufacturing will be grim, wrought with pollution that mirrors the continued increase in plastic demand. However, if this new technology is, at the very least, understood as a necessary means for securing a sustainable waste to energy problem that so many countries are currently struggling with, then the potential for economic growth and prosperity is unlimited.