It is generally accepted that there are three ways to recycle plastic waste: mechanical, chemical, and energy recovery. Mechanical and chemical recycling recaptures waste materials and puts them back into plastics manufacturing. Energy recovery is something entirely different. Can it even be considered a true recycling strategy?
Seraphim Plastics is a Tennessee plastic recycling company that employs mechanical recycling to turn industrial scrap plastic into regrind for future manufacturing. Everything from grinding down plastic purge to complete PVC recycling is on the table for them. They explain that energy recovery isn’t even in the same ballpark.
Converting Plastic Into Energy
The key characteristic of energy recovery recycling is that processes are designed to convert plastic waste into energy. The conversion can be either direct or indirect. Unlike Seraphim Plastics’ mechanical recycling processes, there is no effort in energy recovery to harness plastic’s components in order to make new plastic. This raises questions about whether energy recovery can truly be considered recycling.
As for how it’s done, energy recovery recycling is accomplished through a number of processes, including gasification and incineration. The latter process is easy enough to understand.
In an incineration scenario, scrap plastic is burned to create heat energy. The heat energy is harnessed to generate electricity. Heat produces steam which, in turn, powers generators that produce electricity. The heat could just as easily be captured and harnessed for municipal heating.
Good Candidates for Energy Recovery
There is no doubt that the energy recovery strategy is neither the best nor the only method of keeping plastic waste out of landfills. Because the process pollutes, it is generally reserved for plastic waste that cannot be recycled mechanically or chemically. Candidates include:
- mixed plastics
- contaminated plastics
- films and laminates
- soft plastics
- plastics that are hard to separate.
Pretty much any type of plastic that cannot be effectively recycled mechanically or chemically is a good candidate for energy recovery. So why do the majority of plastics eventually end up in a landfill? Why not deal with all of them through energy recovery?
As someone who believes in coming up with practical solutions whenever possible, this particular aspect of dealing with plastic waste has always puzzled me. We don’t want plastic in landfills. We are against chemical recycling because it is energy intense and simultaneously polluting. Still, it makes sense to mechanically recycle what we can and send the rest to energy recovery.
Some People Will Never Be Happy
There is an easy answer to why all plastic waste isn’t subjected to energy recovery: a small number of vocal people are against the practice. The same people cannot accept the fact that every human process produces waste of some sort. They believe there is a way to completely eliminate plastic without any negative consequences, and they will not be happy with any solutions other than that.
Even if we could filter out 99% of the pollutants created by plastic incineration, they wouldn’t be happy. They would find a way to complain about how we deal with what gets filtered out. They would be unhappy with the fact that energy recovery is capable of producing electricity from what is otherwise landfill fodder.
Maybe the Issue Isn’t Really Recycling
In attempting to determine whether energy recovery truly qualifies as recycling, little details that lead to questioning motives start to emerge. Maybe all the objections to chemical recycling and energy recovery aren’t really about recycling at all. Perhaps the real issue is that there are people who simply despise plastics even though they won’t stop using them in their own daily lives. Think about it.