Plastics, Ben, Plastics

Do you ever hear about a subject for the first time and think it must be a brand new thing and then do some googling and realize that, actually, people have been on about it for years?

That’s what happened to me with port promoter Albert Barbusci’s scheme to establish a plastic waste-to-fuels plant in his “logistics” park on our harbor. While the plan to allow Michigan-based QCI, LLC to set up shop here came like a bolt from the blue and QCI itself is hardly a household name, the quest to turn plastics into fuels (or other plastics) has been underway for years.

And yet, the technologies being put forth to accomplish this feat of alchemy are all pretty new.

I decided to educate myself on the subject and here’s what I’ve discovered (so far).

 

Polymers

As it has been a long time since I cracked a chemistry textbook (let alone an atom), I am relying heavily on the interwebs for this article — starting with this helpful article by British science writer Chris Woodward on Explain That Stuff.

Woodward begins by noting that there are many different kinds of plastic but they all share one characteristic: they “are soft and easy to turn into many different forms during manufacture.”

Plastics are (mostly) synthetic (human-made) materials, made from polymers, which are long molecules built around chains of carbon atoms, typically with hydrogen, oxygen, sulfur, and nitrogen filling in the spaces. You can think of a polymer as a big molecule made by repeating a small bit called a monomer over and over again; “poly” means many, so “polymer” is simply short for “many monomers.” If you think of how a long coal train is made from many trucks coupled together, that’s what polymers are like. The trucks are the monomers and the entire train, made from lots of identical trucks, is the polymer. Where a coal train might have a couple of dozen trucks, a polymer could be built from hundreds or even thousands of monomers. In other words, polymers typically have very large and heavy molecules.

Plastics can be divided in a number of ways.

For example, we can divide them into natural plastics (like cellulose, silk and rubber) that are obtained from plants and animals and synthetic plastics (like nylon, polystyrene and synthetic rubber) that are derived from petroleum oil and made in labs.

We can divide them according to the structure of the monomers that make up their polymers — which, says Woodward, is why we talk about polyesters, polythenes, polyurethanes, etc.

We can divide them into the seven standard classifications you see on the “chasing arrows” symbol that appears on plastic products. The numbers can be used to identify plastics that can be recycled together (1 and 2, for example). But Greg Seaman, writing in eartheasy, says the symbol doesn’t necessarily mean the item can be recycled as “there are numerous plastic-based products that cannot break down and cannot be recycled.” In some cases, the plastic is recyclable but there is no market for it, so it will end up in landfill anyway. I’ve borrowed eartheasy’s handy chart to explain the seven classifications:

Seven plastic codes. (Source: eartheasy https://learn.eartheasy.com/articles/plastics-by-the-numbers/)

Seven plastic codes. (Source: eartheasy)

 

Finally, a really important distinction that can be drawn is that between plastics that soften when heated (thermoplastics) and those that never soften after they’re initially molded (thermosets).

The difference, says Woodford, comes down to the bonds joining the polymer molecules that make up the plastic: if the bonds are weak, they will break apart easily when heated and “quickly reform again when we take the heat away.” Thermoplastics are easy to melt down and recycle.

Thermosets, on the other hand:

…are usually made from much much bigger polymer chains than thermoplastics. When they’re initially manufactured, they’re heated or compressed to form a dense, hard, structure with strong cross-links binding each of these long molecular chains to its neighbors….[T]hat’s why we can’t simply heat thermosets to remold or reform them. Once they’re “set” (cured) during manufacture, they stay that way.

Examples include polyurethane (insulating material in construction) and polytetrafluoroethylene/PTFE (non-stick coatings on cookware).

 

Recycling Fail

One way of dealing with waste plastic is via what Alexander H. Tullo writing in Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN) characterizes as “mechanical” recycling through which we “merely wash the plastics and melt them down again.” (Basically, what we do with our blue bag program.) The problem with that, says Tullo, is that:

Plastics recycling, as it exists today, is a mess. In 2015, the US recycled only 9.1% of the 31 million t[ons] of plastics that consumers threw out, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The vast majority ended up in either landfills or incinerators.

Australian recycling center. (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Australian recycling center. (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Recycling facilities, Tullo explained, are “most interested in PET beverage bottles and high-density polyethylene containers like milk jugs—plastics numbers 1 and 2, respectively.” But even plastics 1 and 2 can be difficult to recycle if they’re contaminated (a problem that has been encountered here in the CBRM) As a result, writes Tullo:

[P]lastics are usually downcycled into applications with less-exacting specifications than what the virgin materials were designed for. A soda bottle doesn’t become a soda bottle again; it is made into a carpet or a fleece vest. In its next incarnation, the milk jug becomes the inner layer of a detergent bottle.

Part of the problem, according to recycling consultant, Nina Bellucci Butler, is that recycled materials tend to be more expensive than “virgin” materials, in part because of a market that fails to “incorporate the environmental cost and benefit in using virgin materials versus recycled or the full environmental impact of landfilling our resources.” She gives the example of municipal tipping fees that are so low, it’s cheaper to dump plastics than attempt to “recover value” from them.

She also notes that recycling isn’t attractive “when oil is below $100 a barrel” because:

Companies aren’t ready to pay 20% premiums for a product that is not at the same level of quality as virgin unless there is a marketplace incentive to producing a product with a lower carbon footprint.

Tullo suggests that chemical recycling (the subject of his article) could provide solutions to some of the shortfalls associated with mechanical recycling.

 

Advanced recycling

Chemical recycling is also referred to as “advanced recycling.”

According to the Plastics Industry Association website, the term refers to:

…innovative ways of turning used plastics into materials that are as good as new. It can create monomers (via chemical recycling), other chemical building blocks and even fuels (via pyrolysis and gasification).

If you’re still with me, a) you trouper and b) here’s the way the industry association explains these three advanced forms of recycling:

Chemical recycling is any process by which a polymer is chemically reduced to its original monomer form so that it can eventually be processed (re-polymerized) and remade into new plastic materials that go on to be new plastic products…Chemical recycling has long been used for nylons, and the industry is working to make it possible for other resin types.

Pyrolysis, sometimes called “plastics to fuel,” turns non-recycled plastics from municipal solid waste (garbage) into a synthetic crude oil that can be refined into diesel fuel, gasoline, heating oil or waxes. (Tullo says, “pyrolysis can turn mixed plastic waste into naphtha, which can be cracked into petrochemicals and plastics.” QCI employs some version of pyrolysis.)

Gasification turns non-recycled materials from municipal solid waste (garbage) into a synthesis gas, or “syngas,” which can be used for electric power generation or converted into fuel or chemical feedstocks, such as ethanol and methanol, some of which can also be used to make new plastics that go into consumer products.

Tullo, in his C&N piece, finds companies pursuing all three methods of advanced recycling but what is notable is that none is at a very advanced state of development: he writes of Agilyx, “a small company” that has opened a plant in Tigard, Oregon, where it “uses pyrolysis to break down about 10 metric tons per day of polystyrene waste into its starting material, styrene” and is working with 30 companies on projects “at various stages of developments.”

He also references Plastic Energy, which “uses pyrolysis to transform mixed plastics into diesel and naphtha” and has “plans to build 10 plants in both Asia and Europe by 2023” and Loop Industries, which is building a commercial plant to “break down PET into its raw materials in Spartanburg, South Carolina, as part of a joint venture with the big polyester maker Indorama. And Loop aims to build three more plants by 2023.”

 

Pros & Cons

One of the most vocal critics of plastics-to-energy schemes I’ve come across is Dr. Andrew Rollinson, who has a masters in Energy and Environment and a doctorate in Philosophy and who, in 2007, “trained as a small-scale renewable energy specialist.”

Rollinson is downright scathing on the subject of plastics-to-energy:

The modern notion is to pyrolyse plastic (and other municipal refuse) into a gas or oil which is then useable as a commodity, invariably a “fuel”, in its own right. This conveniently ignores the fact that pyrolysis is an energy consuming process: more energy has to be put in to treat the waste than can actually be recovered. It can never be sustainable.

And what of the fuel from these ill-conceived schemes? All pyrolysis EfW [Energy from Waste] or ‘plastic to fuels’ products must be combusted to liberate energy, thus releasing the same quantity of carbon dioxide [as] if the plastic had been incinerated directly. The product’s existence has merely been an intermediary stage in the combustion of fossil fuels.

But the idea is even more imprudent. There are substantial flaws with the pyrolysis of plastics concept. It has been tacit knowledge for almost one hundred years that this type of waste is practically incompatible with these technologies (3). Also, heavy metals and dioxins become concentrated in the resulting products making then unsuitable as fuels, because when combusted they are released to the environment.

Despite this many governments continue to waste millions deceiving the public in pursuit of an ‘innovation’ that holds the sustainable answer. They ignore the above-mentioned scientific antecedents, and a wake of commercial failures (4).

Cynar, plastics to fuel plant, Ireland.

Still from a 2012 Al Jazeera English feature on Cynar, an Irish plastics-to-fuel facility that went into liquidation in 2018. (Source: YouTube)

But in a 2017 Guardian piece about opposition to proposed waste-to-fuel plants in Appley Bridge in England (plans for which were eventually shelved) and Canberra, Australia (plans for which became subject to review), Douglas Woodring of Ocean Recovery Alliance described such plants as a vital transition technology:

Most countries don’t have enough recycling capacity and I don’t foresee them having enough in near future, so to me the best opportunity is to turn the plastic into fuel, not by incineration but by liquidation.”

Woodring sees this as part of the solution to plastic waste in the near term: “Obviously we don’t want this to keep going forever … but there is so much plastic today with no hope of recycling. This creates value to pay people to collect and sort material.”

I contacted Myra Hird, a professor at the School of Environmental Studies at Queen’s University to ask her thoughts on plastic-to-fuel plants and she responded that, while she knew nothing about QCI in particular, in general:

[W]e want to be cautious in accepting any claims that recycling can be waste-free, or ‘minimal waste.’

She then provided a list of questions or considerations she would have about QCI’s plans (which I’ve included here as an annotation). In conclusion, she said:

 I am familiar with waste to energy facilities, and they all create waste. So the details of this Michigan company would really need to be explored.

This sentiment was echoed by Sean Hammond, policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council (which told me QCI was “not on [their] radar”):

Though I do not know much about this particular project, in general I would say emission free is unrealistic for a plant like this and would merit further investigation.
In addition to fears that the process may consume more energy than can be recovered and that it will likely create waste of of some description, Claire Arkin of the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives worries that any approach to converting plastic waste into energy does nothing to reduce demand for new plastic products and even less to mitigate climate change. Speaking to Elizabeth Royte for a National Geographic article earlier this year, Arkin said:

To uplift these approaches is to distract from real solutions.

Solutions, added  Royte, that “allow people to use less plastic and reuse and recycle more.”

 

Research

I find myself reaching the same conclusion I did in my article on Barbusci’s plan to locate a plastic-to-fuels plant in the CBRM: this is not a decision we should leave to a port consultant with no expertise in the field of advanced recycling. (Mind you, he’s got no experience developing ports, either, and that hasn’t stopped us.)

Barbusci is claiming that this is a project that can proceed even if we have no railway and his port project fails to materialize — we can simply truck in plastics for the QCI plant, which he claims could be up and running here in 24 months, although the company has just been granted permission to fund raise for its first plant in Michigan which, best case scenario, will be open in 2021.

Landfill, South Kent, Michigan. (Source: YouTube https://youtu.be/Rphy1jspD3g)

Landfill, South Kent, Michigan. (Source: YouTube)

But Alexandra Tullo, in that C&EN article I’ve been quoting (an article that, by the way, appeared the day before Barbusci issued his press release) says even experts who believe chemical recycling can work say it can do so only if “deployed at large scale.”

Mark Morgan, vice president of chemical consulting at IHS Markit, told Tullo:

I have looked at the economics under a number of different conditions, and it is pretty scale dependent.

Tullo explains:

For example, a pyrolysis plant with 15,000 t[ons] of annual capacity, processing polyolefins, could produce hydrocarbon oil at a cost of about $800 per metric ton in North America and $1,000 per metric ton in Europe. If the plant has a capacity of 55,000 t[ons], costs drop to $500 and $600, respectively.

To be economically viable, then, such a plant must be large (QCI’s plan for Michigan is to build a plant that can handle 100,000 tons of plastic waste annually). But that’s not all:

These larger plants should be close to large sources of feedstock, Morgan says. “I do not see a business case for very long-distance movement of plastic waste to do chemical recycling with,” he says.

Morgan has firsthand knowledge. In the early 1990s, he was with BP when the company was developing a pyrolysis-like process that would have supplied feedstock to its ethylene plant in Grangemouth, Scotland. Part of the problem was that the waste plastics had to be trucked in from a long distance.

QCI’s Michigan plant (if it is ever built) would be located in a state considered “the worst recycler in the Great Lakes Region,” one that “sent 12.6 million tons of solid waste to in-state landfills in 2017 alone,” according to Jim Malewitz writing in Bridge. Malewitz explains that Michigan, in the ’90s, set aside far more land for landfill than was needed with the result that tipping fees became “dirt cheap.” (36 cents per ton.) How cheap is that? Well:

Low landfill prices made Michigan a prime dumping spot for other states — and Canada. More than a quarter of waste sent to Michigan landfills in 2017 came from outside the state, and 82 percent of the imports came from Canada, according to a Michigan Department of Environmental Quality report.

It seems QCI’s Livonia plant will be located “close to large sources of feedstock.” And if it intends to pay for plastics (like this plant proposed for Ashley, Indiana says it will) presumably haulers would be happy to sell. But what about us? We don’t currently accept truckloads of garbage from out of province (and country) and we have a much better record on waste diversion than Michigan does. Could we attract garbage from elsewhere for this plant? Would we want to?

I don’t have the answers to these questions, but at least I’m asking them, which is more than Barbusci and QCI CEO Dean P. Rose seem to be doing. (How much research can Rose have undertaken if he thinks Barbusci has a logistics park serviced by a deep-water port and a functioning railway?)

I plan to continue my own research into the subject and I would encourage the CBRM to do the same.

Featured image: Bottle Buyology’ at the Minnesota State Fair ‘Eco Experience’ Building, 2012, Tony Webster from Portland, Oregon, United States, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.