Plastic-to-fuel, only fuelling fantasy

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Turning plastic waste into energy is extremely expensive. [Gigira/ Shutterstock]

In light of the challenges that countries are facing due to China’s new standards on plastic recyclables imports, some controversial disposal methods have been getting increased attention, despite the myriad of concerns surrounding them, write Claire Arkin and Janek Vahk.

Claire Arkin is communications and campaign associate at the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives. Janek Vahk is Development and Policy Coordinator at Zero Waste Europe.

The petrochemical industry has been quick to extol the supposed virtues of pyrolysis, also known as plastic to fuel, while some policymakers have promoted this system as a ‘renewable’ transport fuel within the revision of the Renewable Energy Directive.

While pyrolysis is often sold as an option to develop “renewable” transport fuels from hard to recover materials such as plastic, evidence shows that the plastics-to-fuel approach is neither renewable nor economically sustainable.

Instead, the EU has the opportunity to take advantage of the challenge that China has posed to us, by doubling down on reduction efforts and expanding domestic recycling infrastructure, paving the way for a true circular economy.

Concealing plastic overproduction?

The petrochemical industry often flaunts pyrolysis technology as a “solution” to the plastic waste crisis, but it is clear that no waste management approach can absorb existing and rapidly increasing plastic production. 

According to projections, by 2050 the total volume of plastic ever produced will reach 34,000 million tons (over four times what has been produced so far), and will make up 15 percent of the global carbon budget.

Meanwhile, that same study reports that only 9 percent of all plastics produced to date have been recycled. In order to save our marine and land environments from plastic pollution, we must  scale back the amount of plastic we produce, and design better products that fit into a circular economy.

Instead of answering international pressure to phase out the production of non-recyclable plastic, some Members of the European Parliament and Member States have pushed the idea of pyrolysis as a ‘renewable’ transport fuel.

However, plastics-to-fuel processes are incredibly costly, energy-intensive, and unsustainable, and can cause harmful emissions. It would be more practical, safe and cost-effective to phase out non-recyclable plastic and promote better design to replace wasteful products and materials with more sustainable solutions.

Pyrolysis is an inefficient process, both in terms of economics and energy use. Pyrolysis costs a whopping €6,000 to €9,000 to produce only 1 kilowatt of energy, which is twice the cost of photovoltaic solar energy in the same period.

Moreover, waste feedstocks for pyrolysis often require pretreatment steps, such as shredding and drying, that can consume significant quantities energy.

It would also be a tremendous financial burden to build the collection, sorting and processing infrastructure to convert targeted materials to fuel, requiring billions of euros of investment.

And even if governments and industry stakeholders were to build all this infrastructure, it’s unclear if this could actually mitigate existing and expanding plastic production.  In addition, these projects would require a steady stream of particular plastic, necessitating further extraction and production of low-quality plastic.

That’s a lot of money to spend just to enable the existence of non-recyclable plastic packaging and products.

A matter of emissions

Industry claims that these plants have “zero emissions” are questionable, given that almost all plastics are derived from oil, gas or coal, and burning them releases toxic pollutants and greenhouse gases. Creating a fuel from fossil fuel-based material and using fossil fuels to power the process can hardly be counted as “renewable” energy.

According to several studies, pyrolysis of plastic can lead to an increase in total toxicity, as heating various plastics and additives to high temperatures can cause emissions of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) such as dioxins and PCBs.

Even if those pollutants are successfully captured or neutralized, they will end up somewhere, either into the product itself or into byproducts such as fly ash, char, slag and waste water. In fact,  the amount of residual waste produced during a pyrolysis treatment is is about 15 to 20 percent of the overall feedstock used in the process. Besides, research has shown plastic-derived fuel produces higher exhaust emissions than diesel, and it has a higher sulphuric content than both gasoline and diesel.

An opportunity to truly close the loop

In this pivotal moment for EU countries and cities in the wake of China’s ban, policymakers have a choice to make: either to invest towards innovative waste reduction, redesign, and recycling programmes, or funnel taxpayer money into complicated and potentially dangerous techno-fixes like plastic-to-fuel, enabling the same conditions that led China to close its doors in the first place. 

The plastic-to-fuel approach will only shift the onus off of the producers of those hard-to-recover plastic products, and distract from the bold solutions that we need in the wake of the Chinese ban.

Instead of shipping off our plastic burden to Asian countries or turning it into polluting transport fuels, now is the time to increase our domestic recycling capacity, creating green jobs and lowering our carbon footprint in the process.

In this context, it is key to identify and phase out problematic products, and make smart decisions on waste management protocol.

EU policymakers can leverage this critical moment for plastic recycling to find upstream solutions to prevent waste, not just to turn one form of waste into another.   

Subscribe to our newsletters