Historians have typically defined past civilizations by the type of materials they leave behind. The stone age…the bronze age…the iron age. No doubt future archeologists will dub our era as “the plastic age.”
As a species, we seem to leave a trail of plastic in our wake wherever our feet touch the planet. Our plastics pile up in landfills, clog our waterways, and choke our wildlife.
But some researchers are determined to change that. Take, for instance, Australian chemists Prof. Thomas Maschmeyer and Dr. Len Humphreys.
Together they’ve developed a way, not to replace plastic, but to eliminate it. Their technology company Licella has pioneered a method to transform end-of-life plastics into a petroleum substitute. The resulting high-quality oil is suitable for blending into standard hydrocarbon fuels. The team is currently working with energy investors to build the world’s first commercial hydrothermal waste upgrading plant.
Licella has already conducted successful trials at its pilot plant in New South Wales, Australia. Now they’re working with Armstrong Energy to build a plant in the UK. About 20,000 tons of waste will be transformed into fuel every year just from this one facility. The project is scheduled to come online by 2019.
And then there’s Bin2Barrel, a Dutch company founded in 2012 by waste management entrepreneurs Floris Geeris and Paul Harkema. Like Licella, Bin2Barrel converts previously unrecyclable plastic into fuel. Specifically, fuel to power cargo ships.
The company’s first facility is being built in the Port of Amsterdam, and is expected to begin operations very soon. Once it’s up and running, the plant will convert 35,000 tons of (primarily plastic) waste into 30 million liters of fuel during its first operational year. (Note: In June 2018, Bin2Barrel was purchased by IGE Solutions.)
The Dutch government is hoping this will be the first of four such “plastics-to-fuel” factories to be built near the port.
But some experts warn that substitute fuels present their own environmental consequences.
Dr. Tom Beer is an honorary fellow at one of Australia’s top governmental research agencies. To him, there’s an environmental trade-off in the development of plastics-to-energy technology, especially with respect to carbon emissions.
About a third of all extracted oil is used to produce plastics, he says. And that effectively “locks the carbon up into plastic.”
But if that plastic is then converted into bio-crude and burned, the carbon is then released. “It depends what you value most. Do you want to get plastic out of landfills and out of the oceans? Fantastic, but it does mean carbon emissions.”
Still others believe carbon would not be the only unwanted emission resulting from the use of bio-crude. Prof David Cohen is a specialist in the use of nuclear techniques to track fine particle air pollution.
“If you convert organic material into fuel and then burn it – then you’re going to end up with a combination of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and byproducts that could include soot, volatile organic carbons and carbon dioxide, which are all not so good for the atmosphere.”
In Cohen’s view, renewable or low-emission energies are a better choice for delivery power without “pollution displacement.”
However, Maschmeyer says Licella utilizes a groundbreaking technique that involves extracting hydrogen from water. To do that they use a Catalytic Hydrothermal Reactor, or Cat-HTR.
The company claims that while “nature takes millions of years to create fossil fuel,” the Cat-HTR “takes 20-30 minutes to create a renewable bio-crude oil.” According to Maschmeyer, converting waste to fuel via Cat-HTR results in a much lower carbon footprint than typical crude oil processing.
The folks at Bin2Barrel go even further. They claim that the diesel produced at the Bin2Barrel factory reduces CO2 emissions by a whopping 80 percent, compared to traditional diesel production methods.
Critics of waste-to-energy (WtE) solutions also argue that this sort of technology impedes the growth of truly renewable forms of power, such as solar and wind. “Renewable” energy typically refers only to non-fossil sources: Wind, solar, geothermal, hydrothermal and ocean energy, hydropower, biomass, landfill gas, and biogases. (See related article, “Clean Energy…From Garbage Dumps!“)
One outspoken critic of WtE even claims that it’s “a treatment for the symptoms of our desire for too much energy and our generation of too much trash. Let’s stop treating symptoms and start treating causes.”
And yet, you can’t deny that WtE technologies offer a more environmentally friendly option than reliance on fossil fuels–while also addressing the challenge of ever-growing plastic pollution.
Plastics-to-fuel technologies may not be “renewable” in the traditional sense, but they’re certainly worth pursuing. Not only because of the lower carbon emissions, but because they do something previously considered impossible: Recycle the “unrecyclable.”