Transport fuel from municipal waste moves into the fast lane

Recent announcements show how industry is gearing up to turn our waste into liquid fuel. We know that an economically attractive use must be found for waste that is not currently recycled, to prevent it going to landfill or ending up in our seas. Municipal waste is mainly plastic once the recyclables glass, metal and biowaste have been removed. But what is the best way to reuse it? One idea is to use it as feed for a conventional refinery, to be turned into aviation fuel, petrol and diesel or the raw materials for new plastic. 

Neste announced that it is exploring ways to introduce liquefied waste plastic as a raw material for fossil refining. The company’s target is to process more than one million tons of waste plastic annually by 2030. The results of the UK’s Future Fuels for Flight and Freight Competition were published a few weeks ago. Of the seven winners, three used municipal solid waste as the feedstock. Enerkem has already announced a project in Rotterdam to turn waste into methanol for fuel and chemical use. So new technologies are moving to the demonstration phase.

The EU’s Plastics Strategy seems to be out of step with these developments, as it promotes mechanical recycling. But plastic can only be recycled a few times before it becomes degraded. In practice, recycling often means downcycling to a less critical use, followed by disposal. It is much more demanding to recycle waste plastic to a high specification use, particularly to food grade material. This reality is now dawning as the EU process for approving recycling processes comes under scrutiny. Food safety organisations have criticised the process to ensure recycled plastic is sufficiently free from contaminants such as fire retardants or toxic legacy chemicals, for it to come into contact with food. Similar discussions must be taking place in the offices of the large food and drinks companies. Reputations would be severely damaged if their products were to become contaminated by toxins in recycled plastic packaging. 

The arguments are therefore revving up in favour of fuel and chemical use.  The main point against these pathways is that the climate benefits of mechanical recycling are greater. However the emissions savings depend on factors such as the greenhouse gas intensity attributed to post-consumer fossil waste, which is still under discussion. There is of course a place for recycled plastic in non-food applications and the volumes of such material can be increased. But, given the limits to recycling, Europe should back industrial pioneers who are investing in technologies which both solve our waste problems and provide low carbon fuel for transport, particularly aviation and freight which are hard to electrify. We need a variety of solutions for the road ahead.

Published: 5 September 18

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