The vast majority of plastics we produce never get recycled. They are either buried or incinerated. The reasons are many and varied, but the end result is always the same: it is cheaper and easier to use virgin plastic. So that is what we do. But science is working on solutions. It may yet solve the plastic recycling problem once and for all.
One possible solution has emerged from research being conducted at Washington State University (WSU). There, a group of scientists have figured out how to turn polyethylene (PE) into jet fuel components in under an hour, at temperatures far lower than most other heat-based recycling processes.
The task now is to scale up the process to make it commercially viable. If researchers succeed, they believe it possible to convert as much as 90% of the plastics we now throw away into usable hydrocarbon products.
Heat and a Catalyst
The WSU process involves heat and a chemical catalyst that breaks down plastic’s components. Other chemically based recycling processes also use heat and catalysts, but they tend to require higher temperatures and longer reaction times. WSU researchers have improved dramatically on current recycling processes.
They say their process requires temperatures below 500°F. That is lower than the ovens in many commercial kitchens. Moreover, their process can be completed in under an hour. At those speeds, imagine how much jet fuel could be produced by feeding recycling equipment a constant stream of plastic waste 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
It should be noted that the process is currently applicable only to converting PE into lubricant-range hydrocarbons and jet fuel. Yet the WSU team is confident it can be adjusted to accommodate other types of plastics along with producing other types of usable materials. They do not think their success is limited to PE and jet fuel.
Eliminating Plastic Waste
Let’s assume that WSU researchers succeed in commercializing their process. Between their ability to recycle consumer plastics and an already robust commercial plastics recycling industry, we could all but eliminate most plastic waste. That is an exciting possibility to think about.
When it comes to consumer waste, less than 10% of the plastic food containers, grocery bags, etc. we use actually gets recycled. Nearly all of it ends up in landfills or incinerators. Being able to convert 90% of it into usable hydrocarbon products would be huge.
Meanwhile, many types of industrial plastics are already being recycled in significant volumes. Seraphim Plastics is just one company making a go of it. Seraphim operates in seven states including Tennessee, Arkansas, Michigan, and Ohio. Their business model has proved economically viable. If enough players enter the market to provide coverage coast-to-coast, industrial plastic recycling could make a huge dent in the waste problem.
More Solutions to Come
WSU’s research into recycling PE is more than exciting. It is groundbreaking and potentially game changing. Best of all, the science will not stop there. More solutions will come as scientists learn more about how plastics can be deconstructed. Every new discovery opens the door to finding another way of recycling.
In the meantime, all eyes will be on WSU and its ability to come up with a commercially viable program. Their success could mean big things for a lot of industries. The airline industry alone would benefit from access to cheaper and more readily available fuel.
Science doesn’t always live up to its billing. But when it does, it accomplishes remarkable things. Science is discovering new ways to recycle and use plastic waste. It might yet solve our plastic problem once and for all.