New Technologies Are Turning Garbage into Energy

September 10, 2014

New technologies are tapping into the abundant energy potential of our nation’s garbage. Recently, I had the opportunity to discuss these exciting technologies at the Re-Imagining Waste session, which took place during the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Corporate Citizen Conference.

Non-Recycled Plastics Are Particularly Energy Rich

Plastics have become the “go to” material for many modern uses. Plastics are durable, lightweight, and help us do more with less. Think about the last time you visited your local grocery store. Many foods that used to come in cans or jars now come in plastic pouches. These pouches protect foods and help extend shelf life. Plastics pouches can transport more product with less packaging, so it takes less fuel to transport these products. This enables us to do more with less environmental impact.

While these pouches are not currently recycled, they don’t have to end up in landfills. Fast emerging technologies are converting non-recycled plastics and other waste into versatile forms of energy, from electricity to ethanol to a range of fuels for transportation and industry. Because plastics are mainly derived from natural gas or petroleum, they average nearly 15,000 BTUs/lb, which is more energy than most forms of coal.

Thinking of Non-Recycled Waste, Including Plastics, as Energy

There are several studies that demonstrate how much energy the United States could generate if we recovered our non-recycled waste. For example, a recent study from Columbia University found that if the U.S.  were able to divert all municipal solid waste from landfills to waste-to-energy facilities, we could produce enough electricity to power nearly 14 million homes annually – that’s 12% of U.S. households. That could also reduce greenhouse gas emissions by the equivalent of removing 23 million cars from the roads. The study also found that if we were to convert just the non-recycled plastics found in municipal solid waste into fuel via new plastics-to-oil conversion technologies, we could produce 135 million barrels of oil per year. That’s enough oil to create nearly 6 billion gallons of gasoline, which would be enough to fuel nearly 9 million cars for a year.

With all that energy, it makes sense that the plastics industry supports – and that we should all support – efforts to recycle whatever plastics we can and convert the rest into energy.

Making the Change from Waste to Energy

So just how do we tap into all this energy stored in non-recycled plastics? The good news is a growing number of different technologies are making it happen. Traditional waste-to-energy (electricity) technology is one way, but there are also newer, innovative technologies just on the horizon. These technologies include plastics-to-oil, gasification (enthanol), and engineered solid fuel. For example, Agilyx Corporation, RES Polyflow, and Cynar Plc are three plastics-to-oil companies that are bringing this new technology to commercial scale.

The technologies are there, the businesses are growing, but we need public policies that support energy recovery as well. To do this, we need a broad coalition that includes the waste and recycling industries, material suppliers, manufacturers, brand owners, retailers, and non-governmental organizations working together to help educate policy makers about this untapped resource.

To learn more about the benefits of energy recovery, visit chemistrytoenergy.com.