Plastic processing around the world
Posted on 01/12/2021 by Valentin GIRARD
In our previous article, Valentin presented incineration, a technical waste management process for treating waste that cannot be recovered by other means of recycling or recovery.
Finding solutions to deal with the accumulation of plastic waste is becoming essential. It is estimated that 8 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean each year, leading it to contain 150 million tons today. Doesn’t the weather look great for a beach vacation will you tell me ? The problem is not there. It goes much further : plastic breaks down into small particles called “microplastics”. These microplastics are toxic. On the one hand, this causes contamination of drinking water supplies upstream from the ocean. Then, living organisms in the ocean are victims of this contamination. The resulting loss of marine biodiversity causes imbalances, which causes a collapse in marine biomass. This collapse also has a direct impact on continental territories, for many reasons related to global ecosystem mechanisms. To name just one : the effect on plankton. 70% of absorbed greenhouse gases end up in the ocean thanks to plankton. If its biomass collapses, the amount of greenhouse gases absorbed would fall drastically, thus causing an acceleration of global warming, of which we already know some disastrous consequences (more regular and intense natural disasters, rising sea levels and many others).
Hoping to have convinced you that plastic is not a good thing for the planet (and hoping to have given you some new arguments to convince the skeptics around you), let me now take stock with you of what is currently done about the treatment of these plastic wastes on a planetary scale, while explaining to you how our project is positioned in this spectrum of solutions.
Methods to tackle plastic pollution can be divided into 5 major parts, ranked in the figure above from “worst” to “best”. I suggest that you analyze with me each of these methods in the order mentioned.
1- Burial / Burning / Accumulation
Principle : The principle of this method is to get rid of these waste either by piling it up, burying it, or burning it. For the accumulation, we speak of an open landfill. This is often done near the site of consumption, but you should know that many northern countries (including France !!) export their waste to southern countries, Africa or Asia, to landfill them. . Burial, meanwhile, can sometimes be framed with large means, for example nuclear waste which are buried in fairly substantial concrete structures (we go a little outside the framework of plastic but it can also exist for this type of waste). It can also be a simple hole dug and covered. Finally, for burning, the primary goal is to drastically reduce the volume of waste by incinerating it.
Geographic scale : These methods unfortunately have the distinction of being the most widespread. They are widely applied in southern countries, but not only (hello China). The majority of plastics are buried or burned on a small scale (home, neighborhood, even small village). For the large scale, we most often find large landfills, or large-scale landfilling.
Advantages : These methods do not have many ecological advantages, the advantage is economic and logistical. Indeed, it is very easy to practice these methods, and it remains less expensive than recycling for example.
Disadvantages : These methods are very harmful to the environment for several reasons :
- Open air burning leads on the one hand to a conversion of plastic into water but also into CO2 which is a greenhouse gas, but also has the unfortunate tendency to produce Nox, furans and other dioxins which are very toxic gases. . All the additives and substances contained in the plastics are also released into the air (Mercury and arsenic to name but a few). We therefore have both an amplification of the greenhouse effect and disastrous health consequences (1 death in 5 in the world is due to air pollution according to a study proposed by Harvard).
- Burial and accumulation causes plastics to degrade into microplastics and contaminate soils and oceans with the consequences seen in the introduction. Another consequence not mentioned in the introduction is the contamination of soil and water by the additives contained in the plastic (see the section on burning).
Comment : In some parts of the world such as Nepal, a popular method is to dump your waste in nature, but not in a wild dump (directly in the torrent for example). This practice is even worse because the degradation of the plastic is then done more quickly and in a less controlled way.
A factor influencing the wide use of these methods (in addition to its low cost and simplicity) is awareness. Taking the example of Nepal again, we went to some villages where the inhabitants are not really aware of the consequences mentioned above. These people, from my point of view, would gladly adapt their practices if awareness campaigns were put in place (and also some rudimentary means provided).
Link to the project : In the Khumbu region, the most common practice is to accumulate waste in pits (around 80 pits in the valley), and then burn the waste with kerosene. It is this practice that we are trying to eradicate with our project.
2- Energy recovery
Principle : The purpose of this practice is to transform waste into energy for useful use. The most common method for this category is waste incineration. The goal is then to produce thermal energy : i.e. hot water or steam. But there are also other methods, for example to generate electricity. Anaerobic digestion (applicable to biodegradable waste, not plastic) or pyrolysis can produce biogas and fuel oil respectively. These two methods can be classified as between energy recovery and recycling.
Geographic scale : Energy recovery is extremely common in developed countries, especially with incineration. When our garbage are picked up, we send a good part of these to the incineration plant, which generally supplies a district with heating. Anaerobic digestion is also beginning to develop on a larger scale, but remains fairly minor. As for the methods of producing electricity or fuel oil, they currently only exist on an experimental scale.
Advantages : The main advantage is that this method makes it possible to see plastic no longer as a burden but as a resource, and this motivates to better manage waste locally. We create wealth with waste, therefore jobs, energy, in short economic and social development. In addition, these infrastructures often need to be on a fairly large scale (at least a district) to be profitable. This requires large investments. Negative point ? Perhaps not if we consider that these large investments are made by influential players who will take care to put in place good security measures for these machines (I am thinking of anti-pollution filters in particular).
Cons : Whether we speek of incineration, biogas or fuel oil, there is always something burning. This produces CO2 which is a greenhouse gas. There is a drawback seen above. However, this often avoids burning an auxiliary fossil fuel. For example, the fuel oil produced by pyrolysis replaces that which would have been purchased otherwise. Or the heating produced by incineration avoids burning wood or fuel oil to heat your home, …
Another disadvantage remains the toxic products. Even if the anti-pollution filters prevent them from ending up in the atmosphere, they form what is called refiom, a very toxic powder that is very hard to process.
Finally, since these infrastructures are on a large scale, they are expensive and require large logistical and financial resources for their use and for the collection of waste, and this prevents its development in the Southern countries.
Comment : A challenge for our century is to develop these methods of waste treatment (as well as recycling) in the Southern countries for non-recyclable waste, because although they remain low in the qualitative scale, they represent very important development compary to burning, burial and accumulation methods.
Other energy recovery methods exist, but remain on an experimental scale. The same goes for recycling.
Link to the project : One of the machines we will bring to the Khumbu region is a pyrolysis system. This solution is particularly suitable for this region because it makes it possible to process a quantity of plastic adapted to the waste production there, and brings added value to the inhabitants, who currently have to import their fuel oil by helicopter from the capital (in this region, a lot of kerosene is used for heating and cooking). This avoids many helicopter flights : a plus for the planet and for the bill of the locals.
Principle : We all have a more or less clear idea of what it is. According to the dictionnary : “A set of techniques aiming to recover waste and reintroduce it into the production cycle from which it comes”. For plastic, the most popular methods are based on the following principle :
- For PET (e.g. plastic bottles), it is often transformed into fibers, to make clothes, carpets, sleeping bags, etc..
- For other plastics (notably PP and PE), they are melted and remolded to make new objects.
These methods are often economically viable on a large scale, but some initiatives manage to make smaller machines for more local uses, for example Precious Plastic.
Comment : Plastic is not infinitely recyclable… Much of it is lost as the recycling process causes the plastic to lose its useful properties.
Apart from plastic, recycling works for paper and cardboard, glass (which recycles very well), metals, electronic waste, and even green waste if we consider compost as recycling (recovery as fertilizer). There are also initiatives on a smaller scale, such as the company Fabrick, which offers thermal insulation bricks made from clothing.
Geographical scale : Again, recycling remains marginal in southern countries due to lack of means, but is very widespread in northern countries.
Advantages : Here, we do not produce (a lot of) greenhouse gases, and we avoid producing plastic from oil.
Disadvantages : The main disadvantage is that this method encourages (especially Westerners) to consume plastic. For lack of information, many see plastic as the miracle method. Once in the yellow bin, this plastic will be used again, so we have a clear conscience. But plastic is not infinitely recyclable, and recycling it still requires a lot of energy, and generates pollution.
In addition to this, due to the size of the infrastructures, for the same reasons as energy recovery, these technologies are struggling to develop in southern countries.
Link to the project : The problem with the pyrolysis machine is that it does not process PET. We will be inspired by the machines offered by Precious Plastic to provide a second machine capable of transforming PET into a useful object for the inhabitants of Pangboche and the surrounding villages.
Principle : The principle is to find a second use, or another user for a plastic product that we no longer use. Transforming a plastic bottle into a wasp catcher, audio discs to scare away birds, reselling your coffee maker on Leboncoin or giving your cousin your undersized clothes, we have all already experienced it… But do we do it enough ?
Geographic scale : This practice exists all over the world because it costs nothing and is easy to implement. But it is (I think) less well applied in Western countries, because it is even easier to throw away your waste.
Advantages : This method avoids consuming plastic from petroleum manufacturing, or recycling. 100% of the product is reused, there is no loss here and no large carbon emissions.
To go further, thinking about reusing allows you to change your mentality with regard to plastic. This promotes the circular and local economy. Reuse is the archetype of sustainable development :
- It avoids plastic pollution and the carbon emissions associated with it
- It creates links at the local level (resale of goods, DIY workshops, etc.)
- It saves money on expenses
Disadvantages : It is not feasible on a large scale, and only applies to certain rather specific wastes. For example, it is difficult to apply this to plastic packaging.
A second small drawback is that it can overshadow the next category a bit.
5- Reduction to the source
Principle : All of the above methods, although some are more acceptable than others, are based on the principle of plastic consumption. But given that oil is a fossil resource, and that most plastic ends up in the oceans, the best thing is to limit its consumption. There are many ways to do this : buy your products in bulk, use metal or wooden products rather than plastic (cutlery, bottles, etc.), etc. There is already enough content on this subject on the internet.
Geographic scale : This method applies everywhere, but is much more prevalent in developing countries. This time it is the Westerners who are showing the bad example, by consuming much more than the Southern countries. But unfortunately, overall, this often remains a sudden phenomenon (due to a lack of financial means, for example), rather than a well-considered choice.
Advantages : This principle allows to reduce one’s carbon footprint, because it is not necessary to resort to the previous methods. It also allows you to save a lot of money.
Disadvantages : An a priori undesirable consequence that one could evoke would be the decline in economic activity. But we know very well that GDP is well correlated with carbon emissions. Real downside ? I don’t think so… On the other hand, this raises systemic questions : the decline in growth or decline must be accompanied by public aid for the reconversion of jobs in carbon-intensive sectors towards professions in the sectors most in harmony with a world more sober.
Link with the project : During the 3rd phase of the project (sustainability phase), we would like to carry out an awareness-raising action for the locals but also and especially for tourists, to encourage them to reduce the amount of plastic in Khumbu, and so that the remaining waste is brought down to the Kathmandu valley as much as possible.
Perhaps there is no great conclusion to be drawn from this observation, it is indeed an overview of the current global situation of the treatment of plastic waste.
However, there is a major trend : due to a lack of means, the countries of the South have difficulty in procuring large waste treatment infrastructures, because they are expensive and require large logistical means that are sometimes complicated to set up in these countries. In a village where there is no road access, the garbage truck struggles to pass every week…
I was talking earlier about the challenge of this century to bring these great structures to these countries. Perhaps the solution would rather be to find solutions adapted to these countries : recycling on a smaller scale. This would allow southern countries to have easier access to recycling.
Another finding is to see that Western countries globally prioritize energy recovery while less developed countries prioritize burning and landfilling. Awareness and information remain the only way to change mentalities and move the world to reuse and plastic sobriety, hence this article… To think about, to share !