Have we really been shipping 500,000 tonnes of plastics to China every year? New attitudes and awareness will be important in the coming years for initiating more support for alternative approaches, for investment into the shift to a circular economy model.
Simply recovering energy from plastics through combustion is a reasonable short-term option, but there’s the potential to generate a range of products – more valuable than energy alone – which also fits better with the goals for sustainability.
Given the current reputation of next generation ‘energy from waste’ technologies, such as gasification and pyrolysis, this won’t be easy. Several high-profile failures across the UK have damaged confidence in these technologies among investors.
Traditional combustion facilities are well established at a more regional scale (greater than 60 kilotons per annum) and the issues have come from organisations looking to make commercial gains from these types of large-scale operations. Recent studies, though, have suggested these technologies are more suitable as smaller, town-scale solutions.
Large volumes of waste plastics – and the mixed low-grade plastics that are rejected for use in traditional recycling – can be used as fuels in combustion processes, or used as feedstock for producing energy-rich gases, liquid fuels and chemicals.
Thermal processing of wastes under gasification or pyrolysis conditions offers a more flexible approach than combustion. This kind of thermal treatment plant would produce regular supplies of high-quality products usable for heating and power – which even could be used to run the fleet of vehicles collecting the waste plastics.
Even greater value is contained in the oil, with a range of uses in the petrochemical industries, and use as aviation and HGV fuel. CO2 emissions from such a process would be significantly lower than using virgin materials (like crude oil).
At Cranfield University we are working on a project with Syngas Products in Dorset and WestAfricaENRG in Nigeria, funded by Innovate UK. This is focused on a pilot of a small-scale thermochemical plant which uses plastic-rich waste materials as a feedstock for a one megawatt pyrolysis facility, aiming to demonstrate the commercial feasibility of processing wastes in this way, and to produce high-value liquid fuels and chemical products.
Evidence from the research strongly supports the principle that this type of local facility would cope with the average mix of waste from households and industry. The project is exploring the feasibility of such a process in developing countries, which face different waste management and energy supply challenges to those seen in the UK.
In Nigeria, the electricity connection is sporadic and unreliable, which is typical across many African countries, hence there is an inherent reliance on costly diesel back-up generators as primary sources of electricity generation.
Low-grade plastics, in the context of Nigeria, could provide a ‘greener’ fuel for these generators, thus adding security to the power supply and reducing the reliance on pure fossil-fuels in addition to stimulating development of more MRFs in Nigeria.
The missing ingredient needed for making the transition to this circular plastic waste model is investor confidence and a commitment from the UK government along with supported industry demonstration of gasification and pyrolysis technologies.
There are signals that this is already happening. The government has registered its interest in finding alternative fuels for aviation and HGVs.
The Energy Technologies Institute (ETI), a public-private partnership between global energy and engineering companies and the UK government, has invested £8m into a small-scale waste gasification plant in the West Midlands using sorted household waste.
Once operational, the plant will open up 25 permanent jobs and generate 1.5 megawatts, enough power for 2,500 homes, as well as 40 tonnes of gas for conversion into power, and waste heat for heating a local swimming pool. Its compact and localised scale is its strength, making it possible to integrate with heat networks in towns and provide heat and power to local institutions, hospitals and factories.
Evidence of the success of the ETI plant and other local facilities will be invaluable in the coming years, and vital for being able to say, once and for all, that shipping waste overseas was just an old-world solution.
Photo by JMacPherson