Plastic waste: the choices

Jon Lawson

Adrian Griffiths looks at the issue of exporting plastic waste to be dumped in other countries and just what this means for the recycling industry

“The best way to predict your future is to create it.” This quote from Abraham Lincoln, sixteenth President of the United States, gives a nod to the problematic issue of predicting the future.

Some things in life are easy to agree about, others just seem to gender ire whenever discussed: Energy from Waste and its future appears to be one of them.

I’m sure we all agree that recycling just 10% of plastic globally is far too low.

I’m equally sure that we are all outraged by the prediction that there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050, but what to do about it seems to be more divisive.

I have pondered the hypocrisy of the UK patting itself on the back when 67% of the plastic we claim has been recycled has simply been shipped to countries no better equipped to deal with it than ourselves, but with a poor track record on depositing plastic into the ocean.

The simple solution to this uncomfortable fact, is to ban the export of plastic waste and install the capacity to recycle >90% of it within country. But, I hear you ask, is this possible?

Technically it is, since combining mechanical recycling of plastic (reforming of pellets for moulders to use by separating, washing and re-extruding used plastic into more pellets) with chemical recycling (returning the plastic to its oil format and then making more virgin polymer from the oil, hence creating virgin quality plastic with recycled content), more than 90% of plastic can be recycled.

In fact, the first combined system is being constructed in Scotland as part of project Beacon, I hope this project will provide a beacon that inspires many to follow.

Clearly the weakness of the argument is in the phrase ‘the first system’, which succinctly highlights the capacity gap for chemically recycling plastic.

Filling this gap quickly may be more achievable than many might expect.

Within 10 years all the circa 5mt of plastic currently sent from the EU to the Far East for recycling each year could be processed in the country of origin, which would clear the conscience of rather a lot of people!

By 2050, it is entirely feasible that plastic recycling capacity could have been developed sufficiently so that recycling rates globally exceed 90%.

So technically it is possible, but often the harder question is one of political will. In this case, since the alternative to export is commercially attractive, the material value and the jobs associated with recycling it are kept in country, the benefits of a ban may resonates well in political circles.

Consequently, I’m optimistic that a ban on exporting waste plastic could become reality, boosting the rapid capacity development of a superior alternative.

Of course, some may support such an export ban, but call for more investment into Energy from Waste (EfW), saying is the only big scale, proven approach.

But does it really make sense to produce electricity from plastic?

I’m comfortable that using waste biomass material to produce electricity makes good environmental sense given it releases ‘short cycle’ carbon, but releasing the ‘long cycle’ carbon in plastic should in my mind be regarded with the same level of concern as electricity from coal or oil.

I accept that as a ‘transient technology’ recovering the energy from plastic is better than landfilling it, but once there are alternatives and now there are, the idea of using plastic for its energy value should be consigned to the history books along with coal and oil as quickly as possible.

Getting rid of the old is often easier than finding an alternative and I’m well aware that there is a growing demand for electricity.

If we simply remove plastic from the generation fuel mix would that have an adverse impact? The view, with a 2050 horizon, is very good on this front too.

The Electrical Power Vision report from EUREL (2013) predicts that in the ‘High Renewables’ scenario, 83% of electricity in the EU will be produced by renewables, virtually replacing fossil fuel altogether.

Given such a swing away from fossil fuel is possible, removing plastic from the electricity generaton fuel mix is inconsequential.

So, we can technically recycle more than 90% of all plastic. Can we agree to develop the necessary capacity?

If we do we will create the future where plastic not only has significant environmental benefits during its life, but sets the standard for recycling at the end of its life. A future where the need for landfill, EfW (for plastic) and its export are eliminated.

Adrian Griffiths is Founder and CEO at Recycling Technologies