For the last several months I’ve been writing about all types of energy – from fossil fuel to green – and also about waste, or more simply put, our trash.
If you connect the dots, I’m talking about reforming waste into several forms of energy and other useful commodity by-products. This type of repurposing, or conversion, is crucial to creating a circular economy.
The best distance between two points is a circle
Linear is out; circular is in.
What does this mean?
As a society we’ve become experts at production, consuming what we produce, and then disposing what we can’t consume.
Recycling tried to mitigate that last step, but as I mentioned in my previous blog, it became fraught with problems, from complacency on our part, to global politics and economics. And with those predictably persistent issues, the best attempts at collection and recycling, while admirable, are unsustainable.
Such is the nature of a linear economy. It’s simply not sustainable.
Enter the circular economy, which is sustainable because it goes far beyond recycling. In this economy we replace “dispose,” with “reform.” The material stays within the economy with a renewed life; reforming it means minimal environmental impact. In other words, unlike disposing (and some recycling efforts and methods), the circular economy does not harm our environment.
There are many types of waste materials that can be reformed or repurposed in a circular economy with our technology, but in this blog we’ll continue with the focus on plastics.
A material issue
What if the mountains of collected plastics that our community groups gather from beaches, or that eager and bright young inventors trap in our oceans, can be converted to biofuel that can power your cars, or support our nation’s electrical grid? What if we could deploy a solution to create a world where plastics never become waste?
We have found a way to do it with almost every type of plastic, except one: PET.
PET stands for polyethylene terephthalate, and I 100 percent guarantee you that you have it in your home, or have worn it on your body (polyester). PET is a type of thermoplastic that can return to its original form.
There’s a lot to like about PET plastics, from its resiliency, to its recyclability.
However, the volume of PET waste continues to grow and, combined with all other types of plastic, it is encountering a public relations problem. In turn, this negatively affects the images of industries that produce plastics, such as petrochemical companies, some of which are now wisely using their history of innovation to help with the plastics issue. Not long ago BP (British Petroleum) released this announcement that they are building a recycling plant specifically for PET plastics.
These attempts to find solutions to PET are complementary to other components of a circular economy, as what we would be able to do with our technology in converting PET plastics to biofuel is actually very low, particularly when compared to our yield from other plastics.
And there are many other plastic types that we need to reform – namely, the thermoset, or thermosetting plastics, that are more sturdy and resistant to heat.
These are also pervasive; I can similarly guarantee that you have these types of plastics if you drive a car, or ride a bicycle – anything with tires (although since tires are also largely carbon, we’ll address them with more depth in our next materials blog). You have enjoyed the durability of these plastics if you’ve traveled by airplane. Do you use electronics? Consider your laptop computer cases, your computer mouse, your desktop monitor and your cell phone cover. Students unwittingly appreciate these plastics in their backpacks and athletic shoes.
Durable, yes. Easily recyclable, no.
We’ve all driven by landfills dotted by mountains of tires. And that is what makes an environmentally sound technology that can reform and convert them into energy and other reuse products so important.
This waste-to-energy conversion is not an entirely new concept but as with many great ideas, it needed to be improved upon. Now we have waste reformation – not just to energy, but also other useful and high-demand products like automotive and high-grade marine fuels – with virtually no residual waste.
In my next piece I’ll detail other types of waste we can use in this groundbreaking conversion.