The Role of Chemical Recycling in a Circular Economy and Effective Waste Management

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By Zoltan Kish, Ph.D., Lee Enterprises Consulting, Inc.

Special to The Digest

The increasing amount of waste is one of the most challenging problems facing the World, which creates enormous environmental problems. According to the World Bank, Canada produces the most waste per capita in the world. Additionally, Canada recycles just 9 percent of its plastics. Banning foreign waste import by China and other countries has not helped the waste recycling business in Canada. In addition, shifting the recycling program to the producer responsibility by the Ontario Government, will reduce further plastic waste recycling and will increase the plastic pollution. A ban of certain single-use plastic products (e.g., straws, bags) may not solve the spread of plastic litter and environmental problems. Without more effective and sustainable ways to manage produced waste, more and more waste will end up in landfills polluting our land, water, and air.

At the same time, we have a tremendous business opportunity to convert waste into usable sustainable products. According to a market study report prepared by Market Insights Reports, the smart waste management market was valued at $1.41 billion (USD) in 2018 and is expected to reach $5.19 billion by 2024, registering a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 25.68%, during the forecast period of 2019-2024.

Contaminated and mixed waste products (e.g., plastic, paper, industrial waste, medical waste, MSW) are challenging to recycle by mechanical/physical processing. Especially, traditional plastic waste recycling has difficulties and limitations. Mechanical sorting is not effective for mixed plastic waste. Thousands of different types of plastic are manufactured by combinations of different resin types, dyes, and additives. In addition, the plastic material quality is very susceptible to contamination. Even carefully selected plastic materials can only be recycled limited times in similar products since it degrades every time after reheating. Therefore, most plastic products are downcycled into items of reduced value, such as textiles, toys or fibres, and eventually, end up in landfills and water resources creating tremendous environmental problems. Replacing plastics with alternative materials, such as glass and metals would cost more to manufacture due to the higher energy and other resource consumption. The problem is the way of the current waste management operating.

On the other hand, waste plastic can be recycled into high-value products using advanced and cost-effective waste conversion technologies. The circular economy is not only based on simple reusing waste products. The purpose the recycling is to redesign and convert waste into forms retaining as high value as possible in a circular economy. We need sustainable and effective waste management to protect our environment and develop a working circular economy. In a circular economy, chemical recycling can play a pivotal role in waste conversion into usable materials and clean energy.

Chemical recycling as waste recycling using effective waste conversion technology is essential for a working circular economy. Illinois and Ohio have become the most recent states to pass laws making it easier to build chemical recycling facilities, regulating them as recycling operations rather than waste processing plants. Canadian Government could also consider that as a tool to develop a new approach – “Chemical Recycling” in waste management. Regrettably, Canada and other G7 countries are planning to use waste-to-energy incineration as part of a plastic pollution solution. However, incineration is a very costly and inefficient way for waste conversion into energy and generating highly toxic and carcinogenic pollutants.

The environmental impact of waste can be minimized by proper waste management applying advanced waste conversion technologies. The government should address the demand to solve the incredible waste accumulation problem by developing appropriate tools for waste management challenges and supporting the development of effective waste conversion technologies. We should focus more on waste diversion from landfills and water resources, and the conversion of waste into high-value products. Garbage can be converted into high-value clean energy and sustainable products using advanced and cost-effective waste conversion technologies, such as anaerobic digestion, pyrolysis, gasification, plasma-enhanced gasification, and steam gasification. Therefore, the circular economy should include the use of effective waste conversion technologies to produce high-value usable products. Perspectives of different waste conversion technologies are provided in the article – “Perspectives on Waste-to-Energy Technologies”.

Chemical Recycling should be based on reliable and cost-effective waste conversion technologies. Therefore, it is very important to do technical due diligence before investing and applying new technology to prevent wasting time and money. Regrettably, investors often do not take the time to evaluate the proposed technology and, therefore, the underlying scientific/technological basis of the business is often neglected in the CleanTech sectors. As a result of this, enormous and overpriced facilities were built producing not profitable products. In addition to financial data and management of the company, the underlying scientific/technology base of the applied technology should be considered. Science is supposed to be an essential pillar of a successful and sustainable business. Consequently, it is very important to properly establish the underlying scientific/technology base for applied technologies to build a successful waste conversion plant. The success of waste conversion technology applications depends on the following main factors:

  • The underlying scientific/technological basis of the process
  • Implementation of effective scrubbing systems to remove contaminants
  • Process modelling
  • Mass & Energy balance
  • Proper engineering design
  • Financial data based on mass & energy balance
  • Waste feedstock evaluation, preparation and availability
  • Waste energy conversion efficiency
  • Quantity and quality of the produced products
  • Applications of the products
  • Cost-effectiveness of the project

As a result of many years of development, a unique and cost-effective waste convection technology has been developed and tested at the pre-commercial waste conversion facility.  The developed technology is based on a steam gasification process in combination with a reliable scrubbing/cleaning system. The steam gasification technology represents a potential alternative to the traditional treatments of waste feedstocks (e.g. plastic, biomass, MSW, sewage sludge, industrial by-products) to produce high-quality syngas, which contains no noxious oxides and higher hydrogen concentration than products produced by traditional gasification. The chemistry is different due to the high concentration of steam as a reactant and the total exclusion of air and, therefore, oxygen from the steam reformation process. The proposed technology using an indirectly heated kiln in combination with a reliable and effective scrubbing/cleaning system without a feedstock sorting requirement. The technology uses “off the shelf” commercially proven equipment, which significantly lowers the capital and operating costs compared to other waste conversion technologies.

In a working circular economy, a solution for waste disposal and clean energy and sustainable product regeneration is an effective waste conversion technology application based on thermo-chemical and bio-chemical processes. The produced product type depends on the types of feedstock and reactants, and the applied processing conditions as applied physico-chemical interaction conditions in the system. The applied waste conversion technology type depends on the waste feedstock composition and the market requirement on the produced products from waste. The suitable waste conversion technology can divert waste from landfills and convert waste into usable products and prevent contamination of our environment. The waste steam gasification technology as a cost-effective process is most suitable for contaminated and mixed waste (including plastic waste) conversion into various forms of high-value sustainable products, such as electricity, hydrogen, liquid synthetic fuels, and chemicals. At the current stage, based on market demand, hydrogen production from mixed waste (including contaminated plastic waste) is the most cost-effective solution. Using the steam gasification technology for waste conversion into hydrogen is an opportunity for a profitable business, which can solve the world’s biggest problem – the enormous waste accumulation.

There is a requirement for a new and innovative approach in the development of a solution for waste management challenges, waste recycling, plastic waste pollution reduction and a working circular economy. The used waste conversion technologies should be efficient and combined with a reliable scrubbing/cleaning system to remove contaminants in order to generate clean/ renewable energy and other sustainable products and prevent pollution of the surrounding environment. The application of advanced and effective waste conversion technologies can offer an innovative solution to the waste accumulation problem and making a positive impact on the protection of our environment.

Chemical recycling based on cost-effective waste conversion technologies can provide a fundamental shift in the way of produced waste handling in a circular economy. In the working circular economy, the use of cost-effective waste conversion technologies is an innovative waste management strategy to divert waste from landfills, produce clean energy and sustainable products, reduce depletion of natural resources, protect our environment, save time and money. Chemical recycling is a comprehensive and innovative solution to the complex problem of waste management and moving towards a circular economy.

Annex

Some articles on the topics of the current waste problem, a circular economy, perspectives of different waste conversion technologies and advantages of the steam gasification technology for advance waste management and protection of our environment can be downloaded from the website: https://quasarsciencetech.com/resources.

About the Author

Dr. Zoltan Kish is a member of Lee Enterprises Consulting.  He has a Ph.D. in Chemistry with over 25 years of diverse industrial and academic experience and contributed to more than 70 scientific publications. He has developed and managed complex research and development programs related to alternative/renewable energy, clean technologies, effective waste conversion into usable products, sustainability, and advanced materials applications, such as solar energy technology, ceramic engine & cutting tool components, materials processing, and electronics. Dr. Kish was the Director of Research & Development at two Canadian alternative energy companies where he focused on R&D and commercialization of unique waste conversion technologies and reliable scrubbing/cleaning systems to produce clean and sustainable energy products. In response to global environmental challenges and the need for scientific evaluations and development of new technologies and advanced materials applications, he has established a consulting company – Quasar ScienceTech (www.quasarsciencetech.com) to develop advanced technologies and provide multidisciplinary science and technology consulting in the areas of Natural & Applied Sciences, Clean Technologies & Energy, Waste Conversion, Scrubbing Systems, Technical Due Diligence, Climate Change Mitigation, Circular Economy, Sustainability, Innovation, and Advanced Materials Applications.



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