The bigger picture
Before we discuss co-processing, it is vital to understand the context of plastic in our world today:
To make plastic, refined oil or natural gas has to undergo many multi-step chemical reactions in order to make the long-chained polymer that we know and love (or despise, depending on whom you ask). We have gotten so good at the production of different kinds of plastics that we produce over 400 million tons of plastic per year. However, what we have yet to get good at is how we can actually break down these millions of chemically-derived polymer bonds and know what we can do with this ubiquitous material after its use.
This is the problem with plastic: it is cheap, produced on a global scale, and is built on a platform of linearity. There is no accountability for the producer nor the consumer to clean up this plastic mess. Every player in the plastic linear cycle plays into its production, usage, and consumption; however, who is buying into its recovery post-disposal? Currently, there is an entire web of different plastics that do not have an end solution. Low-value plastics such as MLPs, polystyrene, polyvinyl chloride, polypropylene, and LDPE are not accepted by most facilities around the world because they lack the technologies and innovations to properly put these plastics back in the loop. In addition, even when we do successfully sort and segregate these materials, recycling markets are reluctant to accept them because of their low profitability.
Geo-politics of Plastics
So what is the solution for these plastics if we don’t want to make the nearest landfill, incinerator, or ocean their next home? It is a very complicated issue, and adding to the complexity is our global redistribution of plastics. For the past 25 years, the Global North has been sending its plastic waste to the Global South for “recycling”; about half the plastic intended for recycling is traded overseas. But after China’s “pull-out” in the recycling import trade, countries such as India, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam have become the largest importers of the world’s trash. However, these countries even more so lack the technologies and innovations to handle our already difficult-to-process plastics.
So what do you do in this instance? Leave the plastics to sit forever in a landfill to either leach into our soils or leak into our oceans, or do with the best available recovery technology that you have? Currently, all across the globe, the best “recovery” technology for plastics like MLPs, which are multi layered plastics like chip bags and wrappers, is co-processing.
Co-processing, explained: a necessary bandaid
Co-processing is a waste-to-energy process that burns plastic waste through a process called pyrolysis. In a controlled kiln, plastics are burned at the proper temperature where they emit the least amount of emissions into the atmosphere. The energy harvested from this process is used by high-energy demanding industries such as cement, lime, or electricity, which typically use coal as their source of energy. Plastics actually have a much higher calorific value than coal; thus co-processing makes use of plastics that cannot be recycled in addition to being an effective alternative to coal and other fossil fuels. The cement industry is one of the highest industrial emitters of GHGs, and this solution has been proposed to lower their overall carbon footprint for climate change action.
In India, this technology helps reduce MLP plastic pollution while replacing coal. However, this should be considered as a transitional technology and transitional outlet for these plastics. There need to be more “circular” solutions to recover these plastics successfully and bring them back into the production cycle. However, given the socioeconomic implications within the global waste management sector, there is a lot that needs to be changed about the entire cycle from production to recovery, and zero-waste-to-landfill disposal within that process.
We are inventing plastics faster than we can develop their recovery processes. Co-processing is the best available solution to the plastics that have no outlet for recovery: recycling is not even on the table for many of our plastic materials, and yet we continue to produce them. Co-processing kicks out coal and makes use of plastics that are already littering this Earth, but it boils down to a critical question: why are we making a material that has no true recovery outlet?
Ripping off the bandaid
This is just one of the major gaps within our production industry today. We have a choice: should we develop newer, better technologies to continually recycle and recover the low value plastics that currently have no outlet, or should we throw the entire plastic, drawing board out the window and think about alternate materials instead of plastic? Better yet, do we dare reflect on our own consumption patterns? The answers to these questions completely depend on the many social, economic, and environmental factors that are now deeply co-mingled with each other in our industrially dynamic world.
At least we have co-processing for now, as a much-needed bandaid for today.