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  • Josh Shkrab

Can Non-Recycled Plastics Solve Our Energy Woes?

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

Plastics that don’t find their way to the recycling container may be bound for another place other than landfills. According to a new study published by the Earth Engineering Center (EEC) of Columbia University, non-recycled plastics could provide a substantial portion of our electricity. “Plastics have a significantly higher energy value than coal,” said Prof. Marco J. Castaldi of the Earth and Environmental Engineering Department of Columbia University and associate director of EEC. “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.”

The most common method for converting municipal solid waste to electricity is to simply burn the garbage through an incineration facility. The incinerator is the most common form of Waste-to-Energy (WTE) facility found across the U.S. There are however recent WTE technologies that are creating crude oil, usable hydrogen, ethanol, and methane from everyday municipal solid waste, including non-recycled plastics. The study estimated that if all non-recycled plastics were collected and converted to electricity by a WTE facility, 52 million megawatts hours (MWh) of electricity could be produced, enough to power 5.2 million homes. The study also estimated that if all municipal solid waste was diverted from landfills to WTE facilities, approximately 162 million MWh of electricity could be generated, equivalent to powering 16.2 million American homes.

Reusing waste also significantly reduces our reliance on landfills to house our garbage. Although landfills are subject to federal environmental regulations under 40 CFR 258, subtitle D of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), individual states have the option to implement equivalently stringent rules. The problem is that states don’t always regulate landfills as restrictively as they should, allowing improperly designed landfills to be constructed. Poorly designed landfills result in groundwater contamination and can be extremely costly to clean up. If our municipal solid wastes were sent to WTE facilities however, it would eliminate landfills and the potential environmental impacts associated with them.

These reasons make WTE facilities an increasingly attractive option for disposing of all garbage, not just non-recycled plastics. “Even after use, plastics continue to be a valuable resource,” said Steve Russell, vice president of plastics for the American Chemistry Council. “Whenever possible, plastics should be recycled,” Russell said, “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.” The next step is to develop an effective national policy that continues to emphasize the benefits of recycling, while transitioning from landfilling to electricity production via WTE facilities.



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