Recent reports have underscored the enormity of the global plastic waste issue. There are 9.2 billion tons of plastic waste in the environment and an additional 500 tons of plastics are produced annually. Of this, 40 percent is considered single-use plastic, and only 9 percent of all plastics are recycled in the United States. A growing concern is microplastics, which are small particles of plastic that break down into the ocean environment and are ingested by fish and humans.
Bioeconomy advocates have proffered biobased technologies as a key solution to reducing and managing plastics waste. But would the proliferation of biobased plastics help or hurt waste management efforts? And how realistic is it to turn trash into fuel or other products?
Bipartisan Interest in Addressing Plastic Waste
A September 26 hearing in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee explored the global plastic waste issue, particularly with regard to plastic waste in the ocean. The problem of marine plastic debris largely comes from the developing world, where waste management systems are not keeping pace with the rise in plastic production and use. Members asked witnesses for ideas to reduce global plastic waste, and ideas offered included fees on single-use plastics, R&D money for alternatives, and more foreign aid spent on waste management.
The House recently passed the Save Our Seas Act (S. 756), and the Senate is expected to pass the bill this week. The bill would reauthorize the Marine Debris Program at NOAA, and provide $10 million annually for efforts to reduce marine debris. It also calls for establishing international action to combat marine debris, through trade efforts or other multi-national agreements. Additionally, it supports furthering R&D of “biobased and other alternatives or environmentally feasible improvements to materials that reduce municipal solid waste.”
Biobased Plastics – Solving Plastic Waste, or Simply Complicating Waste Streams?
Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), expressed interest in biobased plastics, commenting during his opening remarks at the hearing, “I’m trying to find a way that plastics can biodegrade into natural elements … without undercutting the fundamental value of plastics that they last a bit.” While biobased plastics are from renewable sources, they don’t necessarily break down in waste streams. Some biobased plastics can be compostable, but not all are, therefore these materials pose the same issues as petroleum-based plastic to waste management.
One of the most common examples of a biobased plastic is polylactic acid (PLA), which is most commonly derived from corn. Often, compostable PLA is used to make plastics, such as single-use food service applications such as straws or cups. According to USDA, biobased plastics can reduce greenhouse gases from plastic production by 35 percent.
At the hearing, Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) asked about biodegradable, compostable plastics made from agricultural products. While compostable plastics are one possible solution, it would require access to industrial composting facilities, which simply don’t exist in most municipalities. According to hearing witness Cal Dooley, President and CEO of the American Chemistry Council, “[We need to be] making sure that we do a comprehensive evaluation of how [biobased plastics] can be managed through the waste stream. Some of these compostable plastics can contaminate the more traditional recycling waste streams.” Dr. Lavender Law Research Professor of Oceanography with the Sea Education Association noted that these biodegradable plastics won’t degrade in the ocean.
To sustainably scale up the production of biobased, compostable plastics, production facilities, as well as appropriate disposal methods, are needed. With growing interest in addressing food waste, and through state-level regulation now in many states, compostable packaging and plastic use could be composted, but would require consumer education, source separation, and composting facilities.
Turning Plastic into Fuels – Trash to Treasure?
Turning municipal solid waste into fuel has been a topic of research for many years, and one company has turned that dream into a reality. Canadian company Enerkem Inc. secured approval by EPA to sell its waste-to-ethanol fuel in the United States in late 2017. Enerkem is the first commercially successful plant to produce waste-to-ethanol for the U.S. market. It is currently scaling up production to 13 million gallons per year of cellulosic fuel at its Edmonton, Canada facility.
At the September G7 Environment, Energy and Oceans Ministerial Meeting, Enerkem made news again when it announced that it is hoping to use its expertise to address the issue of marine debris. In their announcement, company spokeswoman Marie-Helene Labrie noted that the 150 million tons of plastic debris in the ocean is expected to triple in the next decade. Enerkem hopes to address the ocean debris issue by “turn[ing] ocean plastics waste into valuable products.”
Renewable diesel producer Neste has also recently announced that it is exploring turning plastic waste into diesel and other products, aiming to use more than one million tons of waste plastic by 2030. According to the Finnish company, “to reach ambitious EU plastics recycling targets, both chemical and mechanical recycling need to be recognized in the EU”.
Despite their promise, these waste to energy projects are only feasible in developed countries with sophisticated waste management infrastructure. Overall, they represent a drop in the bucket compared to the volume of plastic waste that needs to be addressed.
It’s clear that while the bioeconomy definitely has an important role to play in addressing and reducing plastic waste, the solution will require action on many levels, including regulatory, foreign aid and trade-related actions, as well as industry-driven efforts to reduce plastic in the supply chain.