Wednesday, October 19th, 2011
If all the non-recycled plastics (NRP) buried each year in U.S. landfills were converted to energy, which could be done using existing technologies, it would create enough energy to fuel at least six million cars annually. This comes from a just-released research study from the Earth Engineering Center (EEC) of Columbia University.
“Plastics have a significantly higher energy value than coal,” says Prof. Marco J. Castaldi, Associate Director of the EEC. “Capturing the energy value of non-recycled plastics—and municipal solid waste in general—makes good sense because it provides a good domestic form of energy while minimizing impacts on the environment.”
The study estimated that if all NRP put in landfills in the United States annually were diverted to modern waste-to-energy (WtE) facilities, it could produce 52 million MWh of electricity – enough to power 5.2 million households for a year.
This information is not new, but it is one of many subjects not reported by mainstream media. For example, the American Chemistry Council, which sponsored the EEC study, has been advocating WtE for some time.
SPI: The Plastics Industry Trade Association is a long-term proponent of WtE for plastic that does not enter a recycling channel. SPI president & CEO Bill Carteaux in his frequent presentations to business and civic groups stresses that virtually all plastic products can and should be recycled, but if they do not enter a recycling stream, WtE is the best way to benefit from their high energy value.
Plastics industry leaders agree that recycling is the best choice for used plastics. Plastic can even be recycled more than once, such as Paylode dunnage products for stabilizing shipments by truck and rail. They start with recycled plastic and recycle it again and again as the dunnage products near the end of their life cycle.
When used plastic products are not recycled, the fact that plastics have more energy value than coal takes on added significance. Even without knowing the precise current cost of fuel to create 52 million MWh of electricity, we know it’s big money. Then why in America, a country with many clever people, are we burying that much energy value in the form of plastic every year?
If that’s not enough to drive your common sense meter into the red zone, the EEC study also estimates that if all the municipal solid waste (MSW) created in the United States, including plastics, was put into waste-to-energy (WtE) facilities instead of landfills, it could produce 162 MWh of electricity – enough to power 16.2 million households every year.
WtE is working well in some parts of the U.S., but as a whole the country is lagging many other parts of the world, especially Europe. The European Union is often accused of moving slowly, but a few years ago it boldly issued a ban on landfilling with untreated waste. Therefore, scores of WtE facilities were rapidly built. There are now over 800 working WtE plants in Europe, with more planned.
The U.S. has 87 WtE facilities and a few under development, which is nowhere near enough. During an interview, Prof. Castaldi noted that about 85% of plastic products that don’t get recycled go to landfills. The good news: There is plenty of room for improvement.