Here’s a solution for the global plastic and energy crises

Growing mountains of plastic waste and mounting energy insecurity are two of the biggest environmental challenges the world faces today. What if one elegant solution could solve both problems at once?

plastic pollution ocean
A UNEP study in 2014 estimated that about 280 million tonnes of plastic is produced globally each year and only a very small percentage is recycled. Instead, some of that plastic ends up in the world's oceans. Image: Shutterstock

As much of the world begins to decarbonize its energy mix, many regions are now facing short term energy shortages until alternative sources of power are introduced. 

Australia is a good example of a country that is facing such a crisis. At the same time, it also has a growing plastic waste problem, and addressing this could present an important solution to its energy woes. 

With thousands of tonnes of plastics in Australia’s coastal waters, and its main plastic export market of China now closing its doors to unprocessed scrap material, it is ironic that one problem could actually help solve the other. 

That is, the “dirty plastics” which rarely get recycled could be transformed into waste-derived-fuel for everyday energy needs.

Of course it is best to recycle all materials in order to get the highest value and best use from them, but when 90 per cent of the world’s plastic inventory is not recycled due to gaps in infrastructure capacity, waste-to-energy should have a place in the set of solutions to address some of today’s most pressing environmental challenges. 

Waste-to-energy is not a new concept, yet despite successful operations globally, it is often not on the radar of many governments as an option.  This is unfortunate, as the opportunity exists to both effectively remove plastic pollution, while simultaneously supporting some of the local energy needs in the wake of the decommissioning of coal-fired generators. 

It can also simply help to fill the increased energy demand of a growing population, and can even be made into road-ready fuel by smart technology like that of Australia’s Integrated Green Energy Solutions.   

Common criticism

Critics of waste-to-energy fall into two main camps. 

First, there are those who do not like incineration because of the collective memory of old backyard incinerators that would spew out smoke and dangerous substances.  But incineration technology has evolved significantly since then, and today’s solutions cause much fewer harmful emissions.  

Second, some critics say that all waste should be recycled, and that fuel generation in some capacity is not recycling because the waste material no longer exists.

These criticisms and high standards for the creation of perfect circular economies with plastic materials that are complex and hard to “un-make”, are unrealistic in the short term, and may create more environmental impacts in the long term, if plastics’ persistence in its afterlife is a concern - which it should be. 

While we must always work towards building a better world with less of an environmental impact, we must accept the fact that our population is growing, and with that comes more consumption and greenhouse gas emissions; reducing the weight of goods by using plastic in manufacturing is a popular strategy to reduce the carbon output of sectors such as transport and logistics. 

The goal today should be to reduce the negative environmental impacts of the activities already being undertaken.  Accordingly, we should be working on scaled solutions that recover and remove the waste plastic inventory that exists in most of our countries. 

If we do not have the recycling infrastructure to handle this volume—which we do not; experts estimate that less than 15 per cemt of the global plastic produced actually gets recycled—it makes sense to find ways to create other forms of value from this resource, such as energy or fuel, at least for the materials that are not likely to be reached by recycling infrastructures.

The opportunity exists to both effectively remove plastic pollution, while simultaneously supporting some of the local energy needs in the wake of the decommissioning of coal-fired generators. 

While creating less waste to begin with, or having full material circularity, are important and valid long-term objectives, we should be taking advantage of the immediate and long term benefits of waste-to-energy in the many years that it may take to get to that state.

The positives with these new technologies usually outweigh the negatives of the current “steady-state” of slow increases in recycling capacities.  

We should honestly address the lack of infrastructure that exists for recycling globally, and understand properly what these new technologies can do, rather than assume immediately that they are “bad” simply because of the history of some of the unregulated predecessor equipment.   

Today’s waste-to-energy plants are sophisticated and clean; they demonstrate that controls can be put in place to appropriately manage emissions and byproducts, and the liquification technologies like that of Integrated Green Energy Ltd, use no oxygen and include no burning to begin with. The output can be a low-Sulphur fuel, which is often better for reducing air pollution than the high-sulphur diesel still used today in many countries. 

While not as clean as renewable energy, waste is a renewable resource (until we no longer produce waste), and it is less polluting than ‘clean coal’, while also creating a large societal gain which needs to be valued. 

That value is the removal of waste from our communities, environment, waters and landfills, while also reducing the methane created in landfills along the way (which is 23 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide).   

Where possible, waste resources should always be sent for recycling and higher value-added options. But waste-to-energy is a necessary option for those materials that rarely (or never) make it to recycling.  The two processes do not compete, but in fact, they complement one another.  

Neither recycling nor waste-to-energy represent a panacea for the volumes of plastic waste inventory that exist today.  Given our need for energy and fuel, waste-to-energy should be on the table for discussion with a view to quick adoption. 

Revaluing scrap plastics as a resource for new products and packaging, along with the options for converting it to road-ready fuel, will be at the centre of the conversation at the Plasticity Sydney conference on 31 October 2017, with a sole focus on creating a world without plastic pollution.  


Trish Hyde is director, Plasticity Sydney. Doug Woodring is co-founder and managing director, Ocean Recovery Alliance. This article was written exclusively for Eco-Business.

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