WASHINGTON - After two years of review, the U.S. Navy has issued contracts for its complex plan to recycle waste plastics generated by its fighting ships. The Navy hopes to spur government agencies or companies to recycle plastics by developing the necessary technology. One technology is a controversial pyrolysis method promoted two years ago by the American Plastics Council.
The Navy's path from the on-board plastics compactor to marketable product promises to be long. Most any disposable, on-board item with a plastic component is squeezed into 21-inch diameter, discus-shaped objects by $330,000 shipboard compressors. The compressors reduce the object's volume by one-third.
At best, say the program's military leaders and civilian contractors, the percentage of plastics of any kind within the discs is 70 percent.
The Navy, under the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency program, issued first-phase funding of the six Small Business Innovative Research grants as part of its mission to keep the discus-shaped compressed plastics not only out of the ocean, but also out of landfills. International law bans maritime disposal of shipboard plastics. The U.S. military, which only two years ago witnessed the appointment of a Deputy Under-secretary for Defense for Environ-mental Security, had the idea for the recycling.
But those connected with the project wonder if the Navy's relatively low volume of plastics will demonstrate adequately how the advanced techniques of repolymerization and recycling that it is reviewing would work on a large scale.
``Our objective is to use our discs as a resource material,'' said Craig Alig, deputy director of environmental project for the Navy's Sea Systems Command recycling program at its Car-derock Division headquarters in Annapolis, Md.
``The idea is to reuse the plastic - and to reuse it so that it is cost-effective. If we don't stay on the high road, nobody else will,'' Alig said.
Containing metal and castoff electronics, the compressed discs are difficult to grind and separate. As they contain a large component of food waste, contractors uniformly complain of the discs' smell. For more than two years, the Navy looked for ways to recycle shipboard plastics processed by its special compactor.
In the initial part of the recycling program, the Navy purchased 22 compactors in a $7.3 million contract with Westing-house's Electronic Systems Co. of Baltimore. Installation of these on Navy warships should be complete by the end of 1998, Navy officials said.
Overall, the Navy has committed $238 million to the recycling program.
One of the six contractors, Nelson Engineering Inc. of Titusville, Fla., subcontracts its recycling work to Conrad Industries Inc. of Chehalis, Wash. - a company whose high-heat repolymerization technology was showcased by Washington-based APC in 1994.
The process came under fire from the Oregon Environmental Quality Commission, which in December 1994 termed the process ``energy recovery.'' The commission refused to count it as a process that could contribute to the achievement of the state's rigid plastic container recycling rate. The larger question of whether pyrolysis is recycling was never addressed. APC did not fund the project past the demonstration stage.
A successful test of the system for Navy officials took place May 29 at the Chehalis facility, Nelson said.
As for the makeup of the Navy's plastic, Blain Nelson, president of Nelson Engineering, said, ``I would characterize it more as municipal solid waste with a plastic content than as plastic with a solid-waste content.''
Nelson's closed-loop thermal pyrolysis process initially would burn natural gas to heat the plastic from 900§-1,400§ F to break the plastic into components of fuel oil, carbon black and flammable gas. The gas, in turn, would become the fuel to replace natural gas once the process gets started, Nelson said.
A big program hurdle is the high moisture content of the plastics provided by the Navy's fleet. In the closed loop, ``moisture stays in the system and comes out the other end with the products we're needing,'' according to Nelson.
Besides Nelson, contractors include Adherent Technologies Inc. and Innovative Research Corp. of Albuquerque; Foster-Miller Inc. of Waltham, Mass.; Covofinish Corp. of Scituate, R.I.; and Energy and Environmental Research Corp. of Irvine, Calif.
Alig said all use advanced recycling techniques that went beyond the standard processes of grinding, flaking or repelletizing.
Adherent Technologies uses its grant to fund a tertiary recycling program with a low-temperature catalytic reactor to produce chemicals or fuels from the plastics in the discs, said Ronald E. Allred, Adherent's president.
Foster-Miller's Leslie Rubin, division manager for polymer and materials processing, said, ``We provided the Navy with a two-pronged approach: One uses more traditional separation techniques for trying to break down the consolidated plastic into its components - glass, paper, metals, but also to separate the plastic by plastic type.
``The other is potentially patentable - we'd separate the polymers by type, but this does not involve repolymerization.'' He declined to elaborate.
Rubin added that his company has other SBIR grants with the Navy to produce biodegradable polymers for use on board ship.
The real competition for federal assistance begins in phase two, when SBIR funding is granted to the phase one recipients that have demonstrated ``a clear understanding of a market'' for their technologies, Alig said.
The percentage of those phase one projects making it to the next level is not extraordinarily high, he said.
When the program is fully operational by the end of 1998, the Navy will produce about 1.9 million pounds of discs a year, from ships carrying the new shipboard Westinghouse PNN compactors that unload at the major naval ports of San Diego and Norfolk, Va., Nelson said.
A cost-effective pyrolysis facility using Nelson's technology would have to process 6 million pounds of plastics waste per year and would therefore have to draw on other sources for material, he said.
To take advantage of the Navy's plastics, he suggested such a facility would have to be near the Norfolk military installations.