Let’s not let our plastic go to waste

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We have been thinking……. about plastic in a low carbon, low waste society.

On 1 July Hon Shane Jones and Hon Eugenie Sage announced that $40 million from the $3 billion Provincial Growth Fund would be allocated to projects that are geared to converting waste to other high value products. Recyclable plastic waste is one such waste product, and the technology is now emerging at industrial scale to convert a wide range of different types of plastic to liquid hydrocarbons. These can in turn be used to substitute for existing fossil fuels or converted to a range of ‘new’ plastic products.

The New Zealand Oceans Foundation welcomes this initiative. We do so because it is widely recognised that the best way to deal with the alarming accumulation of plastic waste in the oceans is to stop it getting there in the first place. Keeping plastic waste out of our tips and converting it rather than burning, burying or shipping it offshore is the only responsible way to go.

Until recently however the chemical processes used to treat plastic waste have been very largely a disappointing and expensive failure.

The emergence of a new technology called Cat-HTR may hold the potential to revolutionise the plastic waste conversion picture. A full scale industrial plant that will demonstrate this approach is planned in the UK but is yet to be built. The New Zealand Oceans Foundation has no commercial ties and we are not endorsing this technology, but we are aware that it is out there, and we think that it looks promising.

Two points to note. First, this technology results in the production of petrochemical feedstocks. This may appear to be at odds to the drive towards a low emissions economy. The broader point is that a low emissions economy will still have room, possibly for many years to come, for a range of plastics and petrochemicals. Arguably, petrochemical feedstocks produced through the conversion of plastic waste are a better transitional solution than the burning of pure fossil fuels, though no doubt there will be room for both fuel types since we almost certainly don’t produce enough plastic waste to completely displace traditional oil and gas sources.

Interested readers will find a link to this technology at http://www.muratechnology.com/technology/.

Second, there is a scale issue. The technology pointed to above is scaled to the need to source a minimum of 20,000 tonnes of plastic waste per year. This may be suitable for many of New Zealand’s larger regional councils, but it is likely to be too large for many of New Zealand’s smaller Pacific Island neighbours. There is a need therefore to develop a scaled down version of the MURA technology.

Ideally, a plant that is the size of a standard shipping container and runs off a solar power plant would be ideal.

Some entrepreneurial university engineering department might think of joint venturing with MURA or similar industry partner to develop a containerised version of their plastic waste conversion technology. This would have significant interest around the Pacific, and for New Zealand’s smaller council waste operations as well.

The Minister’s Press Release can be read here: https://www.beehive.govt.nz/release/major-pgf-investment-help-address-nz%E2%80%99s-plastics-challenges