Waste-to-energy: addressing the UK’s plastics crisis and rising energy insecurity with one single solution
TL;DR Across the world, growing energy security and increasing levels of plastic waste are two important environmental issues that need to be addressed. But what if there was one solution for both these problems?
The global plastics crisis has rocketed to the top of public consciousness in recent months in part to an influx of media coverage on plastic pollution. In the UK we produce 3.7 million tonnes of plastic waste every year, yet of all the plastic packaging we use, only 38% is recycled. The rest is sent to landfill, incinerated, recovered or exported to other countries for further processing. From 2014 to 2016, the UK exported 800,000 tonnes of plastic packaging waste each year, 500,000 tonnes of which went to China and Hong Kong. However, recent developments in the recycling industry following the Chinese ban on imports of recyclable waste has put increasing pressure on local councils. Surplus plastic waste previously exported is now piling up at recycling facilities and a lack of storage space is leaving many councils with no choice but to send this plastic to landfill.
Arguably, the best way to deal with our plastics problem is to put an end to the use of single-use plastics. Whilst the UK Government has made some progress on this matter, what with talks of banning the sale of plastic straws and the recent 5p plastic bag charge which led to nine billion fewer bags being distributed across the country, this is just a small step in the right direction. For many, it seems that this promise of eliminating all single-use plastics lacks the immediacy needed to tackle such a huge environmental issue. To this end, the Government needs to focus on alternative ways of dealing with our plastic waste in the short-term. At the same time as dealing with our plastics crisis, the UK has been making huge steps to address growing energy demands and insecurity by encouraging domestic renewable energy production. Recovering energy from the waste plastic piling up at local councils could not only be a way to meet our growing energy needs, but also redirects plastic otherwise destined for landfill to a more environmentally friendly end-of life. Most rigid plastics can only be recycled a few times before they lose their original properties and become non-recyclable. However, instead of simply sending these “dirty plastics” to landfill, we can transform them into waste-derived fuel.
Whilst incinerating wastes such as plastic to create heat and electricity has been around for decades, gasification and pyrolysis waste-to-energy technologies are increasingly recognised as the more environmentally friendly option; both technologies produce less sulphur and nitrogen oxides than incineration. Gasification breaks down waste plastics and converts them into syngas in conditions of little or no oxygen. As well as turning a gas turbine to create heat and electricity, the syngas produced by gasification can be turned into transportation fuels, chemicals and fertilisers. Alternatively, pyrolysis occurs under anaerobic conditions and produces a mixture of oil similar to crude oil (which itself can be further refined into transportation fuels). Until we completely stop using single-use plastics we need to deal with our plastic waste through solutions that don’t rely solely on recycling. With energy insecurity and the plastics crisis dominating the UK’s political and social landscapes, waste-to-energy presents an opportunity to remove the plastic pollution problem, whilst simultaneously addressing local and national energy demand needs.