Waste, Waste Management

Waste to watts: How to get power from plastics

Let's face it: Even the most diligent home recycler ends up putting some plastic items in with the rest of the garbage. That plastic ends up in a garbage truck, and if we're lucky, in a landfill. In the worst case, that plastic makes its way to streams, rivers, lakes and oceans where it harms wildlife.

On the mainstage at GreenBiz Forum 2015 in Phoenix, Arizona, Dow Chemical Company's global sustainability leader, Jeff Wooster, talked about a new program that aims to turn unrecycled plastics into energy in the form of liquid fuel.

In the program, consumers put unrecyclable plastics into a purple plastic bag (called an "Energy Bag") and throw the purple bag into their recycle bin. At the recycler's sorting facility, workers pull the purple bags off the line to be transported to one of Dow's plants. The plants then break down the plastics, converting them into a synthetic crude that can be processed into fuels like gasoline or diesel.

The slogan for the program is pretty simple: "If you don't bin it, bag it." The Energy Bag program, Wooster said, is meant to compliment the circular economy of recycling.

"Some people think circular economy means everything go in the loop and it stays in the loop forever, but that would be my father's garage," he said. "For us, circular economy means that we take as much advantage as we can of the resources we have available to us, the resources we've spent our time and our money and our energy creating, and we make the best use of those as possible."

In the case of the Energy Bag, that use is energy.

"We need energy. We don't have enough renewable energy to meet the demands of our society," Wooster said. "We still need to find different ways of capturing energy, and capturing energy from non-recycled materials in a fashion that's complimentary to mechanical recycling is one way that we can get more energy for our economy."

"At each phase of a product's use, we're adding resources, wer're adding labor, we're adding people's time and investment, and we're taking things off," Wooster said, while showing a diagram of a recycling loop. "When we get to the end of use, some of what we have left can stay in the loop, and some of it needs to go somewhere else."

"It's important to remember that that somewhere else needs to be somewhere as useful as it possibly can be," he said.