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

Plastic waste to be recycled

NREL calculates the lost value of US landfill plastic

With mountains of plastic waste accumulating in landfills, and experts predicting there will be more plastic in the ocean by weight than fish by 2050,The enormous environmental threat posed by plastics is widely recognized. The scientific community is less aware of the opportunity for missed energy. In short, plastic waste also wastes energy.

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

They also released data on the amount of plastic waste that has been put in landfills at the district, state and county levels 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 to be 32.2 million metric tons.

“In order to tackle plastic waste pollution, we really need to have a better understanding of where these resources are,” said Anelia Milbrandt, senior research analyst at NREL and co-author of a new research paper. states, ‘published in the journal Resources, conservation and recycling. “We would like to spread awareness in the communities about the potential of this material.”

Its co-authors on NREL are Cameria Cooney, Alex Padgett and Greg Beckham. Beckham, a senior research fellow, heads the BOTTLE Consortium, a collaboration that was launched last year in an effort to tackle the problem of plastic waste.

By identifying areas with significant amounts of plastic waste, the scientists hope to highlight economic opportunities that can arise by restoring its value through various 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 plastic examined seven materials — variously used to make bottles, CDs, milk jugs, takeout containers and bags, among other things. Communities across the country spent about $2.3 billion getting rid of plastic waste in 2019.

The researchers noted that the amount of landfilled plastic waste in the United States is increasing due to several factors, including low recycling rates, population growth, consumer preference for single-use plastics, and low disposal fees in certain parts of the country. The problem was exacerbated by China’s refusal at the beginning of 2017 to import non-industrial waste plastic from the United States.

The development of new recycling technologies for plastics will create incentives for a circular economy, in which what has been discarded will be reused in place of virgin plastic. Researchers have estimated the market value of landfill plastics from $4.5 billion to $9.9 billion, or $7.2 billion on average. The energy embodied in waste plastics – an indicator of how much energy is used to manufacture the material – equates to about 12% of the country’s energy consumption by the industrial sector.

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

Anelia Milbrandt

Some plastics are separated and recycled, especially polyethylene terephthalate (commonly known as PET), used to make soda bottles; and high-density polyethylene, used in milk jugs and shampoo bottles, but it still accounts for a large proportion of the plastics found in landfills.

The membrane plastic used to make bags is one of the most common types in landfills.

The researchers pointed to two potential solutions for plastics that are not recycled: developing new products based on these plastics to encourage their sorting and collection, and developing advanced sorting technologies that could eventually lead to greater use of recycled materials.

“I hope this paper will also increase the awareness of the industry and investors to look for opportunities,” Milbrandt said.

The amount of plastic waste is related to the size of the population. California, Texas, and Florida are the three most populous states and also have the largest amount of landfill plastic waste. However, New York ranks fourth in terms of population, but it ships much of its waste out of the state.

“Plastic waste is not just an environmental issue. It is a waste management issue. It is also a land use issue because landfills are closing in many areas,” Milbrandt said. It has to go somewhere. I think local governments and industry developers will see a benefit from this report by providing them with information to support decisions.”

The Department of Energy’s Office of Bioenergy Technologies funded the research.

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

Reference: “Quantification and Assessment of Plastic Waste in the United States” by Anelia Milbrandt, Cameria Cooney, Alex Padgett and Greg T. Beckham, Apr 22, 2022 Available here Resources, conservation and recycling.
DOI: 10.1016 / j.resconrec.2022.106363