The current state of plastic recycling is not very effective. Plastic recycling is only able to replace 15-20% of the fossil-fuel-derived raw material needed to produce society’s demand for plastic.
Researchers at Chalmers University in Sweden have now demonstrated how the carbon content in mixed waste could be used to replace all of the fossil raw materials in the production of new plastic. In principle, their technology could completely eliminate the climate impact of plastic materials.
According to the researchers, there are enough carbon atoms in waste to meet the needs of all global plastic production.
The Chalmers process is based on thermochemical technology and involves heating waste to 1100-1500 degrees Fahrenheit. The waste is thereby vaporized and when hydrogen is added, becomes a carbon-based substance that can replace the fossil-fuel building blocks of plastic. The method does not require sorting the waste materials. Different types of waste, such as old plastic products and even paper cups, with or without food residues, can be fed into the recycling reactors. The researchers are now developing the techniques required to utilize their recycling technology in the same factories in which plastic products are currently being made from fossil oil or gas.
The principle of the process is inspired by the natural carbon cycle in which plants break down into carbon dioxide when they wither and die, and then photosynthesis uses carbon dioxide and solar energy to grow new plants.
Producing new plastics would no longer require petroleum or other fossil fuels as raw materials. If the energy needed to drive the recycling reactors is taken from renewable sources, plastics could become the basis of a sustainable and circular economy.
Pioneering recycling turns mixed waste into premium plastics with no climate impact
Photo, posted August 10, 2013, courtesy of Lisa Risager via Flickr.
Earth Wise is a production of WAMC Northeast Public Radio.