A redemption arc for plastic?

Plastic has undergone a real hero-to-villain character arc. Everything that once made it fantastic – its durability, heat resistance and low permeability – is turning out to be a huge problem. We’ve all seen photos of seahorses clinging to plastic waste and turtles tangled in plastic netting, but plastic is an integral material in our daily 21st century life. What can we do about it? How can we make our plastic use less damaging to the environment?

Here in the UK, we’re well used to the concept of recycling. We sort our household waste depending on whether it can be recycled. The recyclable waste goes to a materials recovery facility for sorting into metals, papers and plastics.

What happens to that waste plastic?

The UK’s first waste-plastic-to-hydrogen facility is set for construction at the Protos energy and resource hub, Ellesmere Port, Cheshire. At this facility, plastic will first be shredded and then heated in a thermal conversion chamber. Here, the plastic will melt, vaporise and decompose into synthetic gas (syngas), which is a mixture of methane, hydrogen and carbon monoxide.

The hydrogen from this syngas will be used to fuel cars, buses and HGVs.

But making hydrogen is only one way waste plastic can be a resource: in a process called catalytic cracking, long-chain hydrocarbons such as high-density polyethylene (HDPE) are passed over a catalyst. This causes them to break down into shorter-chain molecules that usually have greater economic value and can be used in more applications than the feedstock polymer. In other words, the plastic is broken down and used to create new, useful chemicals.

So, it’s not all bad news about plastic. If we continue to recover it from waste streams and take it to these treatment facilities, it could be a valuable resource.

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