Cracking the plastic crisis?

Only nine per cent of the plastic used around the world is recycled, the rest is buried, burned, sent abroad or lost to pollute land and sea.

Now an emerging industry promises to turn plastic waste into a valuable resource.

Chemical recycling breaks plastics down into basic components, which can then be used to make new products. It’s a theoretically endless cycle of processing and reuse, a so-called “circular economy”.

Backers claim the process can treat a wider spectrum of waste and produce higher quality material than conventional recovery methods.

One of a new breed of businesses testing the technology for commercial operations in the UK is targeting used tyres, which are typically made of 24 per cent plastic.

A company created by two friends who met while studying at university, Big Atom Advanced Recycling has built an imposing mechanical plant on a sprawling industrial estate in the petrochemical hub of Merseyside.

A contraption of conveyor belts and ferocious-looking steel bladed teeth is able to shred and separate the rubber, metal and textiles from one tonne of tyres every hour.

As co-founder Alex Guslisty explains, refining the mechanical process that pulverises old rubber is critical to the success of the all-important chemical separation further down the line.

“For that chemical recycling process to work well and be efficient, and for us to have good control of the products that are produced from that, we need to have good control of the feed stock that we put inside the reactor. We chose to process rubber, rubber coming from tyres.”

After testing on a small-scale laboratory rig, Big Atom has just taken delivery of a much larger reactor which will break down that rubber into its constituent parts of oil, carbon powder and gas, by heating it in the absence of oxygen. A thermochemical process called pyrolysis.

The company founders claim to have developed a method that uses lower temperatures, saving energy, while using the gas produced to generate electricity to power the reactor.

“This is a chemical process. It’s the bread and butter of what it is to be a chemical engineer. My background in oil and gas has helped me to be able to optimise this process in such a way that we can get more value and also have better environmental benefits,” says business partner Toby Moss.

The chemical part of Big Atom’s recycling process is still in development. For now, the rubber broken down from old tyres is being sold on for re-use in products like soft surfacing for sports and playgrounds.

But after further testing and tinkering to prove the viability and efficiency of the process and reactor design, Moss is confident that the company can commence commercial chemical recycling operations by the end of 2021, feeding recycled oil back into refineries, as an economical, environmentally sustainable alternative to virgin crude.

“We need to see more sites trialling this technology, and the infrastructure in place from the refining industry, as well as demand for circular economy products. All of those types of things will really help this market to grow, and for us to process all of our rubber and plastic waste locally in the UK, rather than abroad.”

The UK, like most developed nations, produces more waste than it can process at home, and sends much of it overseas. Before it banned the trade in 2018, China alone imported nearly eight million tonnes of plastic waste a year. Now the top destination for this waste is Southeast Asia.

That’s simply unacceptable to Adrian Griffiths, CEO and founder of another fledgling UK chemical recycling business, Recycling Technologies, based in Swindon.

“I think it’s a travesty really that actually in a modern society we actually call things recycled simply because we’ve put them on a ship and sent them overseas. No doubt some of that plastic will get recycled but the sad reality is that a lot of plastic does not get recycled and therefore is creating a problem for those places. Any civilised society should have to deal with its waste within the confines of its own country.”

To achieve that aim, the former automotive engineer has designed a commercial plant that can be put together in modular form, making it relatively easy to transport and put together anywhere in the world.

The machine processes films and laminated plastics such a crisp packets and yoghurt pots, breaking them down in another version of the pyrolytic process which produces a variety of waxes, oils and gas at the other end.

While some of that output could be burned in energy from waste plants, Griffiths is adamant that the future of chemical recycling lies in using the elements to create new products, rather than burning it and creating more climate-changing greenhouse gases.

“What we really want to do is take these materials back to the petrochemical industry and use them as the feed stock for making more plastic. You know the world has to get off the kick of burning anything with carbon in it, and so we want to make sure that plastic isn’t used just for fuel.”

Although in its infancy, chemical recycling has the potential, if widely rolled out, to reduce the amount of discarded plastic that ends up buried, incinerated or littering the world’s oceans.

Big chemical manufacturers such as Total, Saudi Arabia’s Sabic and BASF are throwing their weight behind chemical recycling initiatives, while investors are piling into start-ups in the nascent field.

Investments worth $4.3bn for projects to convert plastic rubbish into new polymers or fuel have been announced in the US alone since 2017, according to the American Chemistry Council.

The developments coincide with pledges by big consumer goods brands to slash the amount of “virgin” plastics, newly created from hydrocarbons, in their packaging.

To make a serious dent into the estimated 350 million tonnes of plastic churned out globally each year, though, chemical recycling will have to prove competitive during times of low crude prices. Cheaper oil and natural gas lower one of the main input costs for plastic.

Despite all of its potential benefits many chemical recycling doubters remain. With the petrochemicals industry planning to invest $400bn into new capacity over five years, according to climate think-tank Carbon Tracker, campaigners view these novel waste treatments as a distraction from the root of the problem: overproduction of packaging.

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The long haul to zero emissions aviation

Aviation remains one of the hardest sectors to decarbonise. Nothing propels a commercial aircraft as efficiently and economically as fossil fuel.

Before the pandemic grounded the world’s passenger fleet, aviation accounted for about 2.4 per cent of global emissions. Including non-carbon effects such as nitrogen oxide and contrails — icy vapour trails left in an aircraft’s wake — aviation’s environmental impact rises to about 3.5 per cent, according to Manchester Metropolitan University’s Centre for Aviation, Transport and the Environment.

As other sectors move more quickly to cut their carbon impact, aviation’s share will increase.

Although CO2 emissions per passenger flight have fallen 54 per cent since 1990 thanks to better engines and improved operations, the total volume has jumped 34 per cent over the past five years because of rising air traffic. 

By 2050, we're expecting 10 billion passengers to fly 20 trillion kilometres. That's a lot of carbon.

There are alternatives being developed. Electric aviation has caught lots of people's imagination, but the batteries are still too heavy.

Another potential option is biofuel, made from feedstocks ranging from plants, to used cooking oil and municipal and household waste.

Like all sustainable fuels, it’s expensive — up to two, to four times the cost of standard jet fuel.

Hit by the collapse in global air travel during the Covid-19 pandemic, no carrier wants to pay more for fuel, which has at times accounted for up to 30 per cent of airline operating costs, depending on oil prices.

Environmental groups are also worried by differing definitions of what can be classified as a sustainable feedstock. Ultimately, some that are currently acceptable may prove unsustainable. This might be because there is not enough to meet competing demand from different sectors, as with used cooking oil. Or it could be because unintended consequences are eventually recognised.

For example, the residue generated from processing palm oil for the food industry — known as palm fatty acid distillate — is used by Finland’s Neste and France’s Total to create biofuels. While PFAD may be a residue, rather than a primary product of cultivation, its use has been criticised for enhancing the commercial viability of palm oil, a crop that has contributed to deforestation.

Another solution may lie in synthetic fuel — artificially created to replicate kerosene, but this is not straightforward either. The creation of so-called power-to-liquid or e-fuels requires huge amounts of green electricity, which makes them very expensive — and massive investment is needed in both renewable energy and fuel production to cut the cost. Synthetic fuels also emit carbon, although only what has been taken from the atmosphere.

“The cost of these e-fuels in the 2030s could be as low as today’s low-cost biofuels,” said Daniel Riefer, aviation partner at consultants McKinsey. “But you cannot scale up right away.”

E-fuels have one big advantage. Like clean biofuel, they can be dropped into the tanks of today’s aircraft and use existing fuel infrastructure. “The benefit of sustainable aviation fuel is that we don’t have to change very much,” said Russ Dunn, chief technology officer at GKN Aerospace.

GKN is also working on hydrogen propulsion as part of its sustainable fuel programme.

Hydrogen is the only potential true zero fuel option we know about at the moment.

It’s not a new concept, and was once at the heart of a top-secret U.S cold war project codenamed Project Suntan.

In the late 1950s, a fertiliser factory outside West Palm Beach, Florida was a front for the world’s largest liquefied hydrogen plant, part of a clandestine programme to develop a hydrogen-powered spy plane.

Two years after Project Suntan started, it shut down. The challenges of delivering a hydrogen-fuelled aircraft of the right size and range were too great.

More than 60 years later, hydrogen is back on the aerospace agenda, even if many of the challenges faced by Project Suntan remain.

“Hydrogen is one of the technologies to take us there,” said Grazia Vittadini chief technology officer at Airbus, which is planning to have a zero-emission, hydrogen-powered aircraft ready for service by 2035. The project is a flagship of the EU’s multibillion-euro Covid-19 stimulus package, aimed at greening the bloc’s economy.

Yet not everyone shares Airbus’s confidence that the obstacles encountered by Project Suntan can be overcome by 2050. 

These remain its stability as an aviation fuel, as well as its transportation and storage. Rival Boeing takes a more cautious view. “Our belief is that it will take a while for all the technology and elements of hydrogen propulsion to be worked out before we can get to commercial use,” said Sean Newsum, director of environmental strategy at Boeing Commercial. “Our belief is that sustainable aviation fuels are a higher near-term priority.”

But possibly the biggest obstacle is that it would require trillions in investment, investment in new aircraft, in fuel storage systems, in fuel distribution systems and in production itself.

For the biggest aircraft, there is no obvious solution other than liquid fuel.

The industry admits it will be a very tough challenge to get to net zero by 2050.

In the end it is debatable whether aviation as we know it can ever truly be emissions free.

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