As the world grapples with the looming threat of climate change, finding sustainable solutions to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions has become paramount. In a groundbreaking study by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, it has been revealed that advanced recycling of post-use plastic (PUP) can be a game-changer in both cutting emissions and increasing the recycling rate in the United States.
At the heart of this revolutionary research lies the process of pyrolysis, whereby plastics are subjected to high temperatures in an oxygen-free environment. This results in the production of pyrolysis oil, a liquid mix of compounds that can be utilized as an ingredient in the creation of new plastic. By replacing fossil-derived ingredients such as naphtha and gases, pyrolysis oil helps in manufacturing essential monomers like ethylene and propylene, the building blocks of plastic production.
The study, which collected data from eight companies operating between 2017 and 2021, showcases the significant environmental benefits of advanced recycling. When comparing the GHG emissions of plastic made with just 5% pyrolysis oil from PUP to those derived from crude oil, the analysis reveals a remarkable 18% to 23% reduction for low-density and high-density polyethylene (LDPE and HDPE) respectively.
The environmental advantages of advanced recycling become even more striking when considering end-of-life practices for many plastics in the U.S. Currently, a substantial portion of plastic waste is incinerated, contributing to further GHG emissions. However, when manufacturing pyrolysis-based LDPE and HDPE and factoring in these incineration practices, the study demonstrates an additional 40% to 50% reduction in emissions, bringing the cumulative decrease to an impressive 58% to 73%.
While the reduction percentages in the United States are commendable, the European Union sees even greater benefits from advanced recycling due to the higher rates of PUP incineration. In Europe, where incineration is more prevalent, reductions in GHG emissions can reach up to a staggering 131%. This highlights the urgent need for a strategic shift towards sustainable waste management practices globally.
Apart from the significant GHG emissions reduction, advanced recycling offers a plethora of other advantages. By relying on PUP to produce valuable industrial chemicals, this process creates new markets for recycled plastic materials. Furthermore, the study reveals that when comparing the most likely scenario of 5% recycled materials to virgin production, there is a staggering 65% to 70% reduction in fossil energy use, a 48% to 55% reduction in water consumption, and a remarkable 116% to 118% reduction in solid waste.
Validation through GREET
The credibility of this research is further strengthened by its utilization of the Greenhouse Gases Regulated Emissions and Energy use in Technologies (GREET) model developed by Argonne National Laboratory. With over 55,000 users worldwide, GREET is a widely recognized tool employed by the U.S. Department of Energy and other agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency. This comprehensive model provides a comprehensive framework to assess not only GHG emissions but also fossil energy use, water consumption, and solid waste impacts.
With the empirical evidence provided by this study, there is a clear call to action for industry, policymakers, and consumers alike. Advanced recycling has the potential to play a pivotal role in achieving the global sustainability goals by reducing waste, curbing GHG emissions, and minimizing environmental impacts. It represents a sustainable and efficient solution that can transform hard-to-recycle plastics into valuable raw materials, reducing our reliance on fossil resources.
The research conducted by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory marks a significant step forward in the pursuit of sustainable solutions for plastic waste management. Through advanced recycling and the implementation of pyrolysis technology, the emissions associated with plastic production can be significantly reduced. This groundbreaking innovation not only helps combat climate change but also paves the way for a circular economy where plastics are transformed into valuable resources rather than treated as waste. It is a transformative approach that has the power to reshape the future of plastic production and consumption, making the world a greener and more sustainable place for generations to come.