Scientists estimate that the embodied energy of plastic waste is equivalent to 12% of industrial energy consumption in the United States

Scientists estimate that the embodied energy of plastic waste is equivalent to 12% of industrial energy consumption in the United States

Plastic waste to be recycled

NREL calculates the lost value of plastic going to landfill in the United States

With mountains of plastic waste piling up in landfills and experts predicting that there will be more plastics in the ocean by weight than fish by 2050, the huge environmental threat posed by plastics is widely recognised. . The scientific community is less familiar with the lost energy opportunity. In a nutshell, plastic waste also wastes energy.

Scientists from the US Department of Energy’s (DOE) National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) have found that the energy value of plastic waste going to landfill in 2019 was enough to supply 5% of the electricity consumed by the utility sector. transport in the country or 5.5% by the industrial sector. .

They also released data on the amount of plastic waste placed in landfills at the regional, state and county level and the situation is worse than previously thought. According to NREL, the amount of plastic waste in the United States is 44 million metric tons. Using a somewhat different methodology, the US Environmental Protection Agency calculates the amount at 32.2 million metric tons.

“For us to tackle plastic waste pollution, we really need to better understand where these resources are,” said Anelia Milbrandt, senior research analyst at NREL and co-author of a new paper, “Quantification and evaluation of plastic waste in the United States”. States”, published in the journal Resources, conservation and recycling. “We would like to educate communities about the potential of these materials.”

Her NREL co-authors are Kamyria Coney, Alex Badgett and Gregg Beckham. Principal investigator Beckham leads the BOTTLE Consortium, a collaboration launched last year with the aim of solving the problem of plastic waste.

By identifying areas with large amounts of plastic waste, scientists hope to highlight the economic opportunities that could arise by recovering their value through different processes. Only about 5% of plastic waste in the United States was recycled in 2019, while 86% was left in landfills. The rest was burned to generate electricity.

NREL’s analysis of discarded plastics looked at seven materials – variously used to make bottles, CDs, milk jugs, take-out containers and bags, among other items. Communities across the country spent an estimated $2.3 billion on plastic waste disposal in 2019.

The researchers noted that the amount of plastic waste going to landfill in the United States has increased due to several factors, including low recycling rates, population growth, consumer preference for single-use plastics and low fees. elimination in some parts of the country. The problem has been exacerbated by China’s refusal from 2017 to import non-industrial plastic waste from the United States.

The development of new techniques for recycling plastics would create incentives for a circular economy, where what was once thrown away would be reused instead of virgin plastics. The market value of landfilled plastic ranges from $4.5 billion to $9.9 billion, or $7.2 billion on average, the researchers estimated. The embodied energy of plastic waste – an indicator of the amount of energy needed to manufacture the materials – is equivalent to around 12% of the country’s energy consumption by the industrial sector.

“Plastic waste is not just an environmental problem. It’s a matter of waste management. It’s also a land use issue because landfills are closing in many areas.

Anelia Milbrandt

Some types of plastic are separated and recycled, mainly polyethylene terephthalate (commonly known as PET), used to make soda bottles; and high-density polyethylene, used for milk jugs and shampoo bottles, but these still make up a significant percentage of the plastics found in landfills.

Film-coated plastic used for bags is one of the most common types found in landfills.

The researchers highlighted two possible solutions for non-recycled plastics: developing new products that rely on these plastics to encourage their sorting and collection, and developing advanced sorting technologies that could eventually lead to increased use of recycled materials. .

“I hope this document also educates the industry and investors to look for opportunities,” Milbrandt said.

The amount of plastic waste correlates with the size of the population. California, Texas and Florida are the three most populous states and also have the most plastic waste landfilled. New York, however, is fourth in population, but it ships much of its waste out of state.

“Plastic waste is not just an environmental problem. It’s a matter of waste management. It’s also a land use issue because landfills are closing in many areas,” Milbrandt said. “What do we do with all this waste? It has to go somewhere. I believe that local governments and industry developers will see a benefit from this report by providing them with information to support decisions.

The DOE’s Office of Bioenergy Technologies funded the research.

NREL is the US Department of Energy’s primary national laboratory for renewable energy and energy efficiency research and development. NREL is operated for the Department of Energy by the Alliance for Sustainable Energy, LLC.

Reference: “Quantification and evaluation of plastic waste in the United States” by Anelia Milbrandt, Kamyria Coney, Alex Badgett and Gregg T. Beckham, April 22, 2022, Resources, conservation and recycling.
DOI: 10.1016/j.resconrec.2022.106363

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