The world is facing a plastic crisis at the moment. Plastic is found on top of Mount Everest and at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. It’s everywhere, polluting the oceans and clogging landfill. Recycling isn’t working properly either, with established global trade routes for plastic scrap being redrawn by China and East Asia. We just don’t know what to do with it all.
Waste2Tricity is a company offering a potential solution. They have a technology that takes plastic waste and runs it through something called a distributed modular gasification unit. Hydrogen is then extracted from the syngas, and the gas is burned for electricity. There is no residue or ash, and it can use mixed unrecyclable plastics, even if they are contaminated.
It’s a useful process. It disposes of the waste, and creates both electricity and a transport fuel. They hope to see London buses running on hydrogen made from waste plastics, which would be an intriguing development.
One advantage of a technology like this is that it gives value to low grade plastic waste – exactly the kind that tends to get dumped into landfill or shipped overseas. It would create a market for it. That would help not just with the waste stream constantly flowing out of homes and retailers, but with plastic waste already in the environment as well. We could mine waste sites for scrap plastic and gasify it, helping to tidy up the damage that’s already been done – a potentially restorative idea.
Like any technology that makes use of waste, is does highlight some of the arguments around how we deal with plastic. One approach is zero waste – ban single use plastics, tax plastic production, and try to reduce the use of plastic in the first place. Another approach is the circular economy, which aims to reuse and recycle materials and keep them in circulation instead. Using waste for fuel is closer to the second in seeing waste as a resource, but is does ultimately consume it and it doesn’t particularly fit well into either strategy.
These approaches aren’t mutually exclusive of course, but they do bump into each other from time to time. The plastics industry certainly advocates recycling, because it doesn’t challenge their business model. But all plastics are fossil fuels, which we need to leave in the ground.
Still, a modular gasification unit that could help clean up plastic sounds promising. Waste2Tricity haven’t built one yet, but they are making plans for a demonstration plant and it’s something to keep an eye on.