WASHINGTON (Oct. 17, 2:25 p.m. ET) — If all the plastics that are currently landfilled in the United States were instead converted by pyrolysis to a fuel oil, it would add 87 million barrels of oil per year to the U.S oil supply — or roughly the amount of oil the U.S. consumes in 4½ days.
Several companies — including Envion Inc., Climax Global Energy, Agilyx Corp. and JBI Inc. — are working or have developed processes to pyrolyze plastics into synthetic fuels, according to the study, done by the Earth Engineering Center of Columbia University, for the American Chemistry Council.
The study also said that if that same amount of plastics was used as fuel in power plants designed to just use plastics, it would produce enough electricity, 52 million megawatt hours, to power 5.2 million households annually.
According to the report, an estimated 57.6 billion tons of post-consumer plastics, or 85.8 percent of all plastic used in the United States in 2008, was landfilled. Another 7.7 percent was combusted with energy recovery and only 6.5 percent was recycled.
Columbia's research paper, published in mid-August, also found that if all municipal solid wastes were diverted from landfills to new waste-to-energy power plants, it would produce 162 million megawatt hours of electricity, enough to power 16.2 million households for one year.
“Landfilling of NRP [non-recycled plastics] constitutes a loss of a valuable energy resource,” said the report.
Marco Castaldi, associate director of the Earth Engineering Center, agreed.
“Capturing the energy value of non-recycled plastics — and municipal solid waste in general — makes good sense because it provides a good domestic form of energy while minimizing impacts on the environment,” he said.
Just one example: The report said that the diversion of just 25 percent of mixed biomass and non-recycled plastics in municipal solid wastes to use in waste-to-energy plants would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by anywhere from 35 to 70 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, depending on the degree of landfill capture in present landfills.
The report further said that the states with the most waste-to-energy capacity — Connecticut, Massachusetts, Hawaii, Maine, Virginia, and Minnesota — recycle, or reuse as energy, between 32 and 65 percent of plastics that are discarded annually.
In addition to pyrolysis of source-separated plastics, and use of source-separated plastics as fuel, the report said the third potential way to recovery the energy value of non-recycled plastics was to increase the capacity and number of waste-to-energy plants, currently around 87, in the U.S.,
“As the United States seeks alternative fuel sources, projects like this — which help quantify the scale and availability of an energy source — are crucial to helping identify renewable fuel sources for policy makers,” said Nickolas Themelis, director of the Earth Engineering Center.
Most plastics made in the U.S. are made from natural gas, not petroleum.
“Whenever possible, plastics should be recycled,” said Steve Russell, vice president of plastics for the ACC. “But when plastics aren't recycled, there is still a tremendous opportunity to recover this abundant energy source to power our homes, vehicles and businesses.”