Co-Processing: A Better Approach To Tackling Low Value Plastics

A larger picture

Before we address co-processing, it is vital to understand the history of plastics in our world today: producing plastic, refined oil or natural gas has to undergo a variety of multi-step chemical reactions in order to make the long-chain polymer that we know and love (or hate, depending on whom you ask). We have been so good at producing different types of plastics that we manufacture over 400 million tons of plastic per year.

What we have yet to do, though, is how we can actually break down these millions of chemically-derived polymer bonds and know what we can do with this common substance after it has been used.This is the plastic problem: it is inexpensive, it is manufactured on a global scale and it is constructed on a linearity model

.There is no responsibility on the part of the manufacturer or the user to clean up this plastic mess. Each player in the linear plastic process plays a part in its growth, use and consumption; but who buys for its post-disposal recovery? There is actually a whole array of various plastics that do not have an end solution. Low-value plastics, such as MLPs, polystyrene, polyvinyl chloride, polypropylene and LDPE, are not approved by most facilities around the world because they lack the technology and inventions needed to put these plastics back in the process properly. In fact, even if we effectively sort and segregate these products, recycling markets are reluctant to accept them because of their low profitability.

Geo-politics of Plastics

So what's the answer for these plastics if we don't want to make the nearest landfill, incinerator or ocean their next home? This is a very complicated issue, and it adds to the complexity of our global redistribution of plastics. The Global North has been sending its plastic waste to the Global South for' recycling' for the last 25 years; about half of the plastics planned for recycling are being sold overseas. But after China's "pull-out" of recycling import trade, countries such as India, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam have become the world's largest trash importers. And, even more so, these countries lack the technology and inventions needed to handle our already difficult-to-process plastics.

So, what are you doing in this instance? Leave the plastics to sit forever in a landfill, either to leach into our soils or to leak into our oceans, or to do with the best available recovery technology you have? Apparently, the latest "recovery" technique for plastics such as MLPs, which are multi-layer plastics such as chip bags and wrappers, is co-processing all over the globe.

Plastic items such as chips bags are extremely difficult to recover The seemingly innocuous chips bag is a silent killer–it is almost impossible to recycle at a scale

Co-processing, explained: the required bandaid

Co-processing is a waste-to-energy method that burns plastic waste through a process called pyrolysis. In a controlled furnace, plastics are burned at the correct temperature where they release the least amount of emissions into the atmosphere. The energy from this method is used by energy-intensive industries such as cement, lime or electricity, which usually use coal as their energy source. Plastics actually have a much higher calorific value than coal; therefore, co-processing uses plastics that can not be recycled in addition to being an effective alternative to coal and other fossil fuels. The cement industry is one of the largest industrial emitters of GHGs, and this approach has been suggested to reduce their total carbon footprint for climate change action.

Co-processing reduces emissions from the cement industry Co-processing helps reduce emissions from cement manufacturing, an industry that has consistently outperformed the worst-offender rankings In India, this technology helps minimize MLP plastic pollution while replacing coal. Nonetheless, this should be seen as a transitional process and a transitional outlet for these plastics. More "circular" solutions are needed to successfully recover these plastics and bring them back to the production cycle. Nonetheless, despite the socio-economic implications of the global waste management industry, there is a great deal that needs to be changed over the entire cycle from development to recovery and zero-waste-to-landfill disposal in this process.

We create plastics faster than we can improve their recovery processes. Co-processing is the best solution possible for plastics that do not have a disposal outlet: recycling is not even on the table for many of our plastic products, and yet we continue to produce them. Co-processing kicks out coal and makes use of plastics that are already littering this Earth, but it boils down to a critical question: why are we making a material that doesn't have a real recovery outlet?

Ripping off the bandaid

This is just one of the greatest holes in our production industry today. We have a choice: should we build older, better technologies to constantly recycle and reuse low-value plastics that actually have no outlet, or should we throw all the plastics out of the window and think of alternative products instead of plastic? Better still, do we wish to comment on our own patterns of consumption? The answers to these questions depend entirely on the many social, economic and environmental factors that are now deeply intertwined in our industrially dynamic world.

At least for now, we've got co-processing as a much-needed bandaid for today.

Co-processing is a bandit. We need options to turn the tap off. The average individual produces 84 kg of plastic waste each year. The Repurpose Team has decided to find out how much it really is, as above. Find out more about this.

Have you found this article informative? Learn more about our toxic relationship with plastic here, or better yet, take action on your own plastic footprint by going back to PlasticNeutral!