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Recovering the Potential of Plastics

Plastics have become an important component of almost every aspect of our lives. From their use in life-saving medical applications to their important role in saving energy and reducing greenhouse gases, plastics offer a broad array of benefits.

The four major industry sectors for plastics are packaging (accounting for 34 per cent), construction (26 per cent), transportation (18 per cent) and electrical and electronic/other (22 per cent). Together, these different market sectors use only four per cent of Canada's annual consumption of oil and gas. Heating and transportation fuel, on the other hand, consume upwards of 88 per cent.Helmets

Despite the fact that plastic packaging consumes only about 1 1/3 per cent of our annual consumption of oil and natural gas, the plastics industry continues to reduce its use of resources and help expand recycling to the point where now, approximately 80 per cent of household plastic food packaging can be potentially recycled into new and valuable products. Recycling water and pop bottles into carpet; tubs and lids into flower pots and bins; plastic bags into new bags or plastic lumber; take-out rigid containers into horticultural trays.

While new markets for recycled plastics continue to emerge, there remains some plastic packaging that cannot yet be recycled due to a variety of factors, such as the use of one or more different types of plastics. For these types of plastic packaging, however, landfill is not the only option.

Building on a good thing

Interest in using energy recovery or energy from waste (EFW) as one option of dealing with solid waste has been on the rise. And, in the case of plastic packaging in particular, energy recovery offers an opportunity to use the inherent BTU value to help generate clean energy and conserve natural resources.


In the U.S. alone, there are 89 such facilities currently in operation. Together, they offer 93,000 tonnes per day capacity, generate a total of 2,700 megawatts of electricity, and prevent the release of 40 million metric tons of greenhouse gases in the form of carbon dioxide equivalents. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Voluntary Reporting of Greenhouse Gases Program shows that these plants prevent the annual release of nearly 24,000 tons of nitrogen oxides and 2.6 million tons of volatile organic compounds, which are very potent greenhouse gases. Approximately 13 per cent of the United States’ solid waste is processed at energy recovery facilities.

Energy recovery complements other waste management options. Statistics show that rather than competing with recycling, energy recovery compliments and recycling. In Europe, statistics show that countries with high energy recovery rates have a correspondingly higher level of recycling.

There are approximately 400 energy recovery facilities in Europe, with 100 new plants planned for construction by 2012. This will increase total capacity by 13 million tonnes.

Safer than ever

Many people erroneously believe that energy recovery facilities release high levels of dioxins and other toxic chemicals into the air. Today’s modern facilities adhere to stringent emission control standards that are among the most highly regulated in the world. Test results demonstrate that dioxin emissions are well below government regulations, present at levels barely detectable by the most sophisticated instrumentation. In fact, more than 45 U.S. energy recovery facilities have won distinguished awards for health and safety.

According to the United Kingdom’s Environment Agency, the emissions produced from one 15-minute, 35-ton firework display during the Millennial celebrations in London equalled 120 years of dioxin emissions from London’s energy recovery facility. The South London Combined Heat and Power (SELCHP) plant is capable of handling 420,000 tonnes of waste per year and produces enough electricity to power approximately 48,000 homes.

Canadian opinion

Canada, on the other hand, only has an installed EFW capacity of less than 800,000 tonnes per year spread across four facilities (Charlottetown, Quebec City, Peel Region and Burnaby). Their combined capacity is around five per cent of Canada’s total municipal solid waste.Vancouver

But, interest is on the rise. Research from the Canadian Energy-From-Waste Coalition shows that 83 per cent of Canadians support energy recovery technologies, up from 67 per cent only four years ago. These Canadians realize that EFW produces energy that can be used for heat and electricity, thereby saving natural resources.

Most recently, The Regional Municipality of Durham and York Region have announced plans to build a $150-million EFW plant that will process around 200,000 tonnes of residual waste a year. A typical 2,000-tonnes per day EFW facility generates about 60 net megawatts of electricity, which is enough energy to power about 60,000 homes.

Other energy from waste initiatives underway in Canada include the City of Edmonton, which is currently building a gasification facility that will use municipal waste residues as its main feedstock. The facility is expected to start up at the end of 2010. Metro Vancouver is also looking to add to its current EFW facility with up to three additional sites. The current facility began commercial operations in 1988 and currently processes 280,000 tonnes of waste per year. And PlascoEnergy has entered into a partnership with the City of Ottawa on a demonstration facility that will process 85 tonnes of solid waste per day. It is currently being commissioned.

A second life worth having

Plastics will undoubtedly continue to play an important role in our society – in everything from enabling further space travel to the generation of new types of vehicles where plastics help reduce fuel usage and emission. At the same time, work continues on finding ways to further increase recycling of plastics, particularly plastic packaging. For plastics where no current technologies exist, energy from waste can offer a viable solution that increases diversion while also using the inherent BTU value of plastics to generate energy and reduce our use of natural resources.

� Copyright 2009, Canadian Plastics Industry Association.

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