Although plastics make up only about 11% of all US municipal solid waste, many are actually more energy dense than coal. Converting these non-recycled plastics into energy with existing technologies could reduce US coal consumption, as well as boost domestic energy reserves. (Source: Earth Engineering Center/Columbia University)
It's good to know that recycling and waste-to-energy conversion increased since the last study 3 years ago. But what's disappointing is how small the increase was and how slowly the implementation of these efforts are progressing. The technology is already available, as we've reported. Establishing an infrastructure, though, takes a lot more time.
Encouraging article and a great idea. I did not realize how much energy is stored in the plastic objects that we throw away. I am also intrigued by the opportunity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. While converting plastics to energy would reduce greenhouse gas emmisions from the plastics in landfills, would there be other, newer emissions generated from the resulting new conversion process? (I'm assuming there would still be a net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions).
On paper, this seems like a good idea waiting to happen. What the study doesn't say is what is involved in turning plastic into energy. Must it be sorted? How is that done. What energy inputs are required? Is there a net energy gain? If this is a feasible approach to converion of plastics into energy why hasn't somebody done something about it?
Gorsky, those are good questions, and are answered in several of the blogs we give links to. Generally, it all depends on the particular method used. For example, in this blog's second graphic, "source-separated materials" means sorted materials. Some plastics-to-energy methods require separated plastics and some don't. Check out the study, or our previous blogs, for more details.
To answer your last question, Gorsky, "If this is a feasible approach to conversion of plastics into energy why hasn't somebody done something about it?" that's a very good question indeed. First, there are multiple methods used, as we mention. They all have different tradeoffs. Second, there's an infrastructure that has to be built for each one, since their products are different. Third, a market has to be developed for each one. I think you get the picture. Fact is, this already is being done, and that's part of what the study is tracking.
Greg, it's funny, but every time I write about alternative fuels someone asks that question about emissions. I do know that there's a net overall reduction in emissions for all these methods. Very few of these methods actually burn plastics. Even the few remaining ones that do are by law entirely closed-loop emission-contained systems. Today, this is a non-issue, at least in the US. We can't give links anymore in comments, but I suggest you check out this article I did, and its comments, from two years ago: Fuel From Plastic Nears Commercialization It answers a lot of these questions.
There are companies working on it. They seem to have some success and some set backs.
I'm sure that politics often interfere with progress.
If we could pull plastics out of the oceans and turn it into fuel, we'd all be better off. But, many governments and corporations would have to answer for how the plastics got there in the first place.
NIST's new five-year strategic plan for its Material Measurement Laboratory lists additive manufacturing materials development as one of the main areas it will support by developing measurements, data, techniques, and models.
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