Expert Voices

How Plastics-to-Fuel Can Become the Next Green Machine (Op-Ed)

plastic, recyclables
(Image credit: Picsfive/Shutterstock)

Doug Woodring is director and co-founder of the Ocean Recovery Alliance, a nonprofit that brings together innovative solutions, technology, collaborations and policy to benefit ocean health. Steve Russell is vice president of the American Chemistry Council's Plastics Division, which leads efforts to "reduce, reuse, recycle and recover" more plastics through outreach, education and access to advances in technology. The authors contributed this article to Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

We all know plastics deliver many benefits that make modern life possible. They help keep our foods fresher longer, reduce the weight of our cars so we use less fuel, insulate our homes so we use less energy, and keep countless medical supplies safe and sterile. While some plastics are recycled, far too many are not — and end up buried in landfills or littered where they can enter delicate marine ecosystems.  

But new technologies that can harness the fuel content in non-recycled plastics could help remedy this. These technologies work as part of an integrated approach to managing waste geared toward creating value from trash — an approach dubbed sustainable materials management.

Cash from trash

One of the biggest benefits to this approach is that it helps everyone — from businesses to consumers to government — start to value materials that used to be "waste." And when people realize materials have value, everyone starts to think about how this value can be captured and put to work for communities. Not discarded. Not buried. And certainly not littered. 

So why do plastics have an intrinsic value as a fuel source? Plastics are created primarily from energy feedstocks, typically natural gas or oil (mostly natural gas in the United States). The hydrocarbons that make up plastics are embodied in the material itself, essentially making plastics a form of stored energy, which can be turned into a liquid fuel source. 

It makes sense that people are asking how to keep more of this valuable fuel in play, even after plastics are used, and how to keep it out of landfills.

One way, of course, is to recycle plastics whenever one can. Today, recycling technologies reprocess many common types of plastics: bottles, containers, cups, caps, lids and so on. Even many flexible plastics, such as bags and wraps, can be recycled at major grocery stores across the United States.

But what about the plastics that can't be economically recycled? They still contain embodied energy and largely untapped value as a new potential fuel source.  

Getting fuel from used plastics

A new set of emerging technologies is helping to convert non-recycled plastics into an array of fuels, crude oil and industrial feedstocks. Processes vary, but these technologies, known as "plastics-to-fuel," involve similar steps.

  1. Plastics are collected and sorted for recycling. Then the non-recycled plastics (or residuals) are shipped to a plastics-to-fuel facility, where they are heated in an oxygen-free environment, melted and vaporized into gases. The gases are then cooled and condensed into a variety of useful products. Plastics-to-fuel technologies do not involve combustion.
  2. Depending on the specific technology, products can include synthetic crude or refined fuels for home heating; ingredients for diesel, gasoline or kerosene; or fuel for industrial combined heat and power. 
  3. Companies sell the petroleum products to manufacturers and industrial users, while fuels can help power cars, buses, ships and planes.

Economics will likely drive adoption of this technology. For example, by tapping the potential of non-recycled plastics, the U.S. could support up to 600 plastics-to-fuel facilities and generate nearly 39,000 jobs, resulting in nearly $9 billion in economic output from plastics-to-fuel operations. And that doesn't even include the $18 billion of economic output during the build-out phase.

Plastics-to-fuel technologies are increasingly scalable and can be customized to meet the needs of various economies and geographies, so they do not require huge machines. [Plant Plastics Seed New Tech, from Miatas to Tea Bags]

The promise of plastics-to-fuel is particularly exciting as an option to recover materials that today may be buried, or in some regions, illegally dumped or burned in open pits due to inadequate waste management infrastructure. The new facilities could create local revenue for communities in parts of the world where trash has become a hazard and a large source of marine litter.

A cleaner fuel

Another potential environmental benefit of plastics-derived fuels is that they can deliver a cleaner-burning fuel, due to the low sulfur content of plastics. Many developing economies currently use diesel with relatively high sulfur content. 

The main product of fuel from plastic, when refined properly, is a diesel with greatly reduced sulfur content. Using this lower sulfur content fuel for boats, machinery, generators and vehicles can help decrease sulfur-related impacts while reducing non-recycled materials along the way.   

Plastics-to-fuel technologies are expected to be particularly helpful in island nations where fuel prices are high and landfill options are limited. Communities now have the potential to create some of their own fuel locally, providing economic and environmental benefits, while removing a portion of the waste stream that potentially causes harm to their waterways, reefs, and tourism.

These are just some of the reasons our two organizations — one representing America's plastics makers, the other a nonprofit dedicated to a trash-free ocean — teamed up to create two new tools aimed at helping communities around the globe evaluate their potential to adopt plastics-to-fuel technologies.

If you're a topical expert — researcher, business leader, author or innovator — and would like to contribute an op-ed piece, email us here.

The "2015 Plastics-to-Fuel Developers Guide" and the "Cost Estimating Tool for Prospective Project Developers" were designed to help potential investors, developers and community leaders determine whether this rapidly growing family of technologies could be a good fit for meeting local waste management needs and local demand for the relevant commodities. 

Available at no cost, these tools provide, for the first time, an exploration of available commercial technologies, operational facilities and things to consider when developing a business plan.

We first announced the tools at the fourth annual Plasticity Forum held in Cascais, Portugal, in early June. Each year, the Plasticity Forum draws hundreds of global thought leaders in the areas of policy, design, innovation, waste management, retail/brand management and more. And earlier this month, we introduced the tools at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation's "Building Better Cities" Forum in Cebu, Philippines. Today, banks and investors are reviewing the online tools to evaluate investment opportunities.

Plastics — even used plastics — are valuable materials that can be used to create new products or fuels and energy. But not if we bury them in landfills or dump them in our waterways. Plastics-to-fuel is one of several technologies that can play a role in converting non-recycled plastics into valuable energy (gasification and refuse-derived fuel are two others). Because no two communities are the same, it is important for individual regions or municipalities to understand which technology is likely to work best for them. 

Hopefully, these new tools will make that decision a little easier. 

Follow all of the Expert Voices issues and debates — and become part of the discussion — on Facebook, Twitter and Google+. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on Live Science.

Ocean Recovery Alliance