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Why not this? Converting plastic to fuel



Costa Rica is taking significant steps to reduce single-use plastics—but plastic waste is not going to be eliminated anytime soon. In the meantime, what if Costa Rica could turn its plastics to fuel? And does current technology for this conversion meet solutions journalism’s REAL test: a response to a problem with evidence of impact, insights that others can adopt and implement, and limitations or caveats we can avoid?

As we continue our “Why not this?” series, which looks at efforts in other latitudes that might be applicable to Costa RIca’s challenges, we take a look at pyrolysis—one method that can be used for the chemical recycling of plastic.

The problem:

We can see positive steps towards reduction of plastic waste all around us, but the global scenario remains hair-raising. According to a 2022 report from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), if current trends continue, “plastic pollution will rise in tandem with an almost threefold increase in plastics use driven by rising populations and incomes” by the year 2060. The production, conversion, and waste management of plastics contributes about 4% of global greenhouse gases, and the impact of plastic pollution on our rivers and oceans, and microplastics on human health, are well documented. Meanwhile, of the 11 billion tons of plastic humans have produced in our history, only 9% have been recycled, according to the MIT Technology Review. Clearly, job one is to reduce plastic production—but what other options are out there to reuse more of the plastic we generate?

A response:

A 2022 article in the journal of Progress in Energy and Combustion Science by Dai, Zhou et al, excerpted on ScienceDirect.com, explains that pyrolysis is a type of thermochemical processing that can be used to heat plastics until the molecules break down into a type of oil. The process is done in the absence of oxygen, unlike incineration or gasification, meaning “less CO2 emission and toxic pollutants.” And unlike other types of recycling—such as producing plastic wood, something we’ve chronicled in our edition—pyrolysis can use plastics that can’t be melted and remodeled, like juice pouches, and even contaminated plastics. Put another way, “mechanical recycling of PSW is hampered by high pre-sorting requirements and decreasing product quality in each cycle, chemical recycling can tackle these challenges:”

Evidence of impact:

According to a 2023 article by GreenBiz, private companies around the world are starting to use this technology, including gigantic players such as ExxonMobil. The story details the impact of Brightmark, a startup in Indiana, that has processed 2,000 tons of waste process and aims to use the resulting fuel for plastic production, thus achieving true circularity. The tricky part, in terms of environmental impact, comes when the oil is sold as fuel, as we’ll get to below.

Adopt-able insights:

One company mentioned in the Greenbiz article, LG Chem in South Korea, is using pyrolysis to process plastic items into useful hard goods for true circularity. Reporter Judith Lewis Mernit writes, “The company has partnered with the marine-waste disposal company NETSPA to turn fishnets and buoys into a substance called ‘aerogel,’ a superlight insulation; its pyrolysis plant is scheduled to be up and running near Seoul by 2024.”

Limitations or caveats to avoid:

The big problem with pyrolysis, Lewis Mernit explains, comes when the oil from processed plastics is sold—and then burned—as fuel. “An analysis by the Minderoo Foundation, an Australia-based philanthropic organization focused on the environment, calculated that of the roughly 2 million tons of advanced recycling capacity scheduled to come online over the next five years, less than half a million tons of this material will actually be recycled back into plastic goods. The rest of the output is destined to power airplanes, trucks and other heavy transportation,” she writes. Data suggests this is “worse for the climate than extracting new crude from the ground.” What’s more, the emissions from processing plastic-based oil into fuel presents extraordinary health risks.

Who’s working on this in Costa Rica and Latin America?

As of the time of publication of this story, we haven’t yet come across companies using pyrolysis for the chemical recycling of plastic in the region. Pyrolysis is being used on biomass by regional initiatives such as a project to convert wastewater sewage sludge into biochar for agriculture.

Do you have questions or insights about pyrolysis for plastics? What do you think about whether Costa Rican companies should explore this option? Write to us at [email protected] or via WhatsApp at +011.506.8506.1506. Our “Why Not This?” mini-stories explore practices and initiatives that are achieving impact elsewhere, but have not yet been widely implemented in Costa Rica. As solutions journalists, we hope to provoke and join conversations about the local potential for these practices… and perhaps to generate ideas for future in-depth editions of El Colectivo 506.

Read more from our edition “Recycling closes the circle” here.

Katherine Stanley Obando
Katherine Stanley Obando
Katherine (Co-Fundadora y Editora) es periodista, editora y autora con 16 años de vivir en Costa Rica. Es también la co-fundadora de JumpStart Costa Rica y Costa Rica Corps, y autora de "Love in Translation." Katherine (Co-Founder and Editor) is a journalist, editor and author living in Costa Rica for the past 16 years. She is also the co-founder of JumpStart Costa Rica and Costa Rica Corps, and author of "Love in Translation."


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