Leaders in the petrochemical industry aim to reinvent how North American consumers think about the life cycle of plastics, a Dow Chemical executive said on Thursday.
Dow senior value chain manager Jeff Wooster said permanent solutions to waste management, including 100% recyclability of packaging materials, are attainable goals - providing the industry can change public thinking about how plastic packaging is used.
Dow and its collaborators have been in talks with various municipalities and private companies, but no community has yet agreed to invest in and install the necessary infrastructure. Wooster said the main hurdle is that the market is not yet established.
“There needs to be collaboration,” added Dow public affairs officer Greg Baldwin, “It’s time not just to talk about it but to begin acting.”
A first step would be to increase the amount of plastic that is collected through recycling, thus building the supply side.
Household consumers must be encouraged - whether through bigger recycling bins or smaller trash cans - to recycle more waste at the end of a product’s life, Wooster said, adding that over 80% of US households have kerbside recycling.
The American Chemistry Council (ACC) and some California-based coalitions have driven the growth in kerbside recycling through education, but more must be done to get producers of plastics and feedstocks on board, Wooster said.
As vice president of Dow’s basic plastics business, Glenn Wright, said at the 2008 PackExpo conference, “Why do we mine coal for energy, yet bury plastic, even though plastic has nearly twice the energy value?”
However, availability of material is only half the problem, while ensuring consistent market demand for recycled content is the hard part.
Any system that aims to reclaim the energy content of plastic packaging materials - which for polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP) is up to 19,000 Btu/lb, or roughly double the energy content of coal - must include a process experts call recycle-to-energy.
The recycle-to-energy concept involves first directing non-renewables such as gas and oil into plastics, and later harnessing the energy content of plastic waste instead of directing these materials to landfills.
While recycle-to-energy will be another key component of a functioning system, it does not solve a chicken-and-egg dilemma of how to grow both the market and the material to meet it.
“The system requires one to assure consistency of reliable supply and someone to assure consistency of reliable demand,” Wooster said. “Processors need to know they can sell at a reasonable return, and those who want to buy need assurance they will have a consistent and reliable material.”