After we are long gone, historians will look upon the remains and fossils left behind us and call this the Plastic Era. If we look at it closer, all the previous periods were named based on the materials they had invented and primarily used to develop their society. The most dominantly used material of our era is plastic, so why not refer to it this era as such.
Honestly speaking, this is not a joke. We are producing too much plastic and wasting the majority of it. Recycling programs do exist but the levels of reusing the plastic waste are still really low. Europe recycles about 30% of the generated plastic waste, the US is around 9%, while recycling programs in the developing countries are almost non-existent.
Most of the plastic that we create, use and then throw away does not end up in landfills. The majority of it is dumped in the world’s oceans and ends up in ocean gyres or in the stomachs of sea creatures, which consequently gets back to us when we use those creatures for food.
We talked to some of London’s most trusted waste collectors that say that besides food, plastic is the most common type of waste in every household. Because of this fact, we should start thinking of putting plastic to good use instead of throwing it away.
One of the best solutions is turning that plastic into energy that we can reuse. Plastic mainly consists of carbon and hydrogen, which means that it has similar energy contents as diesel or other conventional fuels.
Unfortunately, a lot of plastic is burnt and wasted away. Europe incinerates almost 42% of its waste while the US does so with 12.5% of its total garbage. On the other hand, China has already established 30 waste-to-energy plants with several more to come. Is this a solution that we have been searching for all along? Could this be the answer to our waste problem?
Is Burning Plastic Safe?
One of the primary solutions that most countries go with is burning their waste. This, of course, includes plastic. Although this is a good way of not polluting soil and water it still pollutes the air.
Disposing of the plastic waste in this manner courses additional environmental problems. The air around these plants can become unbreathable and it will also continue to add to the greenhouse effect contributing further to the problem of global warming.
Additionally, it is very problematic to situate these facilities that burn plastic in safe areas. No matter where you put them, they will have an effect on the locals. Nobody would like to live near a plant that causes so much noise and produces gas. Finding a safe place to put these types of plants is the first obstacle.
Fortunately, there are better ways to remove plastic than burning it!
Turning Plastic Into Green Energy
The best solution for the plastic waste problem is recycling. More precisely, turning plastic into fuel and making good use of it. A mentioned plastic is mostly comprised of elements which are very valuable in terms of energy. Throwing plastic away is a waste! It takes so much time and effort to make it and so little to use it and then discard it. We as humans have already become a wasteful culture and it is time to change.
There are already many ideas of transforming plastic into useful resources and turning it back into something useful. The problem lies in the technology, the area where to put these plants and of course in the mindset of the people. To truly change our ways, we need to think not in terms of profit but as environmentalists.
Certain programs have been developed or are in development in order to safely transform plastic in an eco-friendly way back to useful energy.
Cold Plasma Pyrolysis
One of the ways of turning plastic into useful fuels is via the process called cold plasma pyrolysis. This process converts waste plastic into hydrogen, ethylene, and methane. Hydrogen and methane are very clean fuel sources as they do not create many harmful compounds like carbon dioxide, unburnt hydrocarbons, and soot. On the other hand, ethylene is found in most plastic used around the world.
The problem with breaking down plastic is that it needs a lot of energy to melt and break down the plastic not useful elements. It needs to be heated up to 3,000°C. Fortunately, cold plasma pyrolysis can do that at temperatures of about 600°C since it combines heat and cold plasma to cool down the elements. Making this process much useful as it requires a lot less energy.
A Renewable Energy Startup Called Licella
Another interesting way of solving the problem of wasting plastic without reusing it is through a startup called Licella. It was created by University of Sydney Prof Thomas Maschmeyer who thinks that transforming end-of-life plastics into a bio-crude petroleum substitute is the best way to go.
Renewable Chemical Technologies Ltd (RCTL), funded by UK-based energy investor Armstrong Energy is investing $10m into Licella which will result in building the world’s first commercial hydrothermal waste upgrading plant. The aim is to eventually create high-quality oil which can be then mixed with standard hydrocarbon fuels. Maschmeyer says that this is the best way to tackle the world’s problem with plastic.
Based on all the evidence presented, the world is heading to a dark place that we only got to see in Sci-Fi movies. All things point towards an apocalyptic future with us, not in it. Energy crisis and pollution will be one of the causes if we don’t deal with it correctly and on time. Recycling is one of the ways to help our planet and if we can find a way to reuse plastic without damaging the Earth, we should take that opportunity and do it!