Plastic waste – a term often used but do we understand exactly why this is a problem? What exactly is plastic waste? Quite simply, it is plastic that has reached the end of its life and needs to be disposed of. But that’s not the problem. The problem is – how is this plastic waste disposed of? Currently, only 9% is successfully recycled. The rest is either sent to landfill, incinerated or – less frequently now because of government legislation – exported to be dealt with – where it is usually landfilled or incinerated causing the same environmental problems that existed already.
So why is disposal of plastic waste such a problem? Well, take for example incineration. For every kilogram of plastic waste burned, 2.9 kilograms of carbon dioxide is produced. Doesn’t fit in very well with global plans to reduce carbon emissions to net-zero does it?
Plastic waste consigned to landfill leeches into the waterways, rivers and ultimately seas and oceans resulting in tiny, microscopic elements of plastic being ingested by sea life to their detriment and eventually our own detriment (as we eat the fish containing plastic particles!).
The obvious solution is to recycle more of the plastic waste. Why doesn’t this happen more?
Part of the answer is that it can be difficult to achieve effectively owing to the many different types of plastics around some of which are more easily recycled than others. Then there has to be a commercial case for firms to invest in expensive recycling facilities. These factors have not always been in alignment.
Let’s be clear about one thing…plastic is not going to be un-invented. Or indeed banned in totality. Yes, measures have been taken to ban plastic bags in supermarkets and other single use plastics but these represents only a tiny fraction of the worldwide production of plastic both on an ongoing basis and since plastic was invented.
Plastic is too useful a commodity; it preserves the life of foodstuffs; it is light, durable, economical and flexible and is used in a vast array of industrial processes where it presents a cheaper and more efficacious solution than most other materials. Therefore, it is NOT going to go away.
As of now, the world has produced over 8 billion tonnes of plastic. Over 6 billion of this production is already waste. And about 80% of this waste has been stuffed in the ecosystem (landfills and oceans). Banning plastic wouldn’t help you get rid of this waste. Also, every day a lot more plastic is produced and sold than thrown out. The experts estimate that by the end of three decades from now, the plastic waste in the ocean could outweigh marine animals.
And when I say plastic waste, I am not talking only about plastic bags, wrappers, water bottles, or nappies. I am talking about everything that is made using plastic. It could be the cap of your pen or bristles in the toothbrush. It could be the elastic of your shorts or the damaged keys of your keyboard. Also, the plastic waste could include your damaged mobile phone, electric switches, shoes, or any other equipment.
The conclusion is that plastic has become a necessity. No matter how hard you try, you cannot go without it. You cannot stop using wrapped products from the supermarket, nor can you stop using your devices or appliances. Don’t forget, even the refrigerator, television and air-conditioner in your room have plastic as an essential component.
The modern world is super-connected. How would we function without devices, routers, internet connections, computers and the like…. all of which rely on plastic in one form or another.
So, if plastic waste is a problem but plastic itself is just too useful and ubiquitous to be magically vanished, what is the solution?
The answer, obviously, is recycling. But I have already commented on the fact that only around 9% of plastic waste is truly recycled owing to technical and commercial difficulties. What can be done to change this dynamic?
QM Recycled Energy (QMRE) is a small UK-based start-up company that, in association with German specialist manufacturer Biofabrik, is introducing to the UK and Republic of Ireland (ROI) a network of plastic waste-2-oil and back to renewable plastic systems.
QMRE is utilising an already-proven but comparatively little-used technology – pyrolysis – with highly significant modern upgrades and modifications – which takes plastic waste and turns it into oil. The waste plastic is cleaned and size-reduced and fed into what is, in effect, a thermal kettle, which is heated to around 450 degrees. At this heat level the pyrolysis reaction occurs – breaking down the long plastic hydrocarbon chains – producing gases which enter a separator. The higher, majority element enters the condenser and cools as liquid oil. The gas enters the purification system and is combusted to provide power for the plant. The synthetic oil created is sealed from the atmosphere and stored in tanks. The element of carbon ash created as a result of the process is packaged. With the correct recipe the new synthetic oil – syncrude – (QMRE’s brand ‘Quel’) – will be pure enough to be used directly from production into heavy diesel engines.
By further processing the oil created can be turned back into new and renewable plastic thus critically reducing the need for further production from virgin plastics. QMRE is in discussion with hundreds of businesses from many different UK sectors anxious to find a technically and commercially viable approach to the problems of plastic waste pollution.
Early days yet, but QMRE is at the threshold of an exciting, modern solution to a decades old problem – the eventual eradication of the problems of plastic waste pollution.