Wednesday, February 17th, 2010

Net Gains: From Marine Debris to Waste-to-Energy

Recently I was talking with a contact from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) Marine Debris Program (MDP).  The MDP serves as a centralized marine debris capability within NOAA in order to coordinate, strengthen and increase the visibility of marine debris issues and efforts within the agency, its partners and the public.  This program is undertaking a national and international effort focusing on identifying, reducing and preventing debris in the marine environment. (Of course, SPI’s own marine debris initiative, Operation Clean Sweep, includes approximately 200 companies that have pledged to take necessary management steps to ensure that spilled resin pellets do not make their way to local waterways or the ocean.)

Through the years, SPI has worked with MDP staff on an educational front including last year’s pre-NPE2009 event entitled “Polymers and the Environment: Emerging Technologies and Science” co-sponsored by SPI and the BioEnvironmental Polymer Society (BEPS).  Dr. Holly Bamford, Marine Debris Program Director and Division Chief, spoke at the conference regarding marine debris issues and the plastics industry.

In talking with my contact, I was interested to hear about a recent program the MDP has undertaken to turn derelict fishing nets (one of the larger contributors to marine debris) into energy.  The Nets-to-Energy Program has taken the fishing net situation and used it as an opportunity to turn the waste into something beneficial: usable electricity.

The whole concept of “waste-to-energy” is not new to the plastics industry.  As SPI President Bill Carteaux has blogged about, plastics are derived from petroleum or natural gas giving them a stored energy value higher than any other material commonly found in the waste stream.  According to one source:

“…plastics have a high calorific value, equivalent to or higher than that of coal, so can provide a very useful source of energy after serving their useful life as a plastics product. Plastics left in municipal waste incinerators (energy-from-waste plants) help generate useful power and heat, while using separated fractions such as paper/plastic mixtures as alternative fuels in power stations offer the prospect of replacing coal and reducing the emission of greenhouse gases.”

In Europe more than 380 waste-to-energy plants exist to deliver energy (heat and electricity) to citizens and industry.  According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), there are only about 90 waste-to-energy plants in the U.S.  However these plants generate enough electricity to supply almost 3 million households.  Imagine what more plants could do.  The idea of recovering energy from plastic is one that should continue to be explored.  As the nation seeks to increase its energy security and looks to sources of new and alternative energy, energy recovery through plastics should be part of the mix.

Leave a Comment