Hope on the Horizon for Fuel from Plastics

An article in The Washington Post on Sept. 16 brought to the forefront a subject that could be of vital concern to the printing industry. The article by Mike Musgrove describes a new technology that is being demonstrated in Montgomery County, Maryland to convert plastics into oil at a very inexpensive cost. When one considers the major substrates employed by the printing industry, particularly as with the growth of the packaging segment, any effort to use our wastes as a renewable or recyclable source for fresh materials or energy should be of great significance to us.

Despite the tremendous volume of anti-plastic literature directed at consumers, there is considerable concern for the ultimate destination of both paper and plastics. None of these materials should wind up in the ground to destruct by natural forces. It has been proven that newspapers and magazines that have been buried for over an extended period of time can still be clearly read. To address the negative reaction by environmental groups to plastics, it is important to in encourage these innovative ventures and find reasonable answers to the dilemma with which we are faced by the very nature of our products.

Renewable Sources

The new process, developed and being demonstrated by a company called Envion, can take one ton of plastics and convert into from three to six barrels of oil. This oil can be then converted to fuel for vehicles. The process generates its own electricity to power the mechanism. It uses low temperature infra-red thermal cracking in a vacuum to achieve its goal. According to the article, the Envion process will be moved to different localities to provide insight into the potential it has for eliminating plastics from the waste streams and essentially make the plastics renewable sources of energy.

This brings to mind a consideration that we must all consider, even today without the use of the Envion technology. Just as we segregate paper by different quality levels for recycling, if we are to recycle plastics, we must consider the individual traits of the various plastics compounds. With the introduction of bioplastics, we have introduced a material that is not harmonious with plastics derived from oil and natural gas. Bioplastics are derived from corn or other plants. These are not compatible with the plastics derived from petroleum. As such, they should be segregated and shipped for other end uses.

A typical end use has been as a fuel for electricity generating plants. There are not as many as should be in existence and operating. One of the problems is the needed volume of burnable waste to maintain the generating process.

A number of years ago, while conducting an environmental workshop for the Flexographic Technical Association in Dallas, we were advised that the state utility had built just such a plant but could not sustain its operation because of a lack of waste products to serve as the fuel. Consider the impact of such a facility or more in the outskirts of cities such as New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles.

It would behoove us, as an industry that contributes much to the waste stream of this nation through printed packaging materials, to promote the development and installation of technology to process our wastes at both the industrial and the consumer level. Companies such as Envion need support in their quest to solve these problems, particularly in the face of a very skeptical and unbelieving community. Look to your community if and when a company such as Envion proposes new technology to help solve out problems with excessive waste.

Fred Shapiro is president of P-F Technical Services Inc. Silver Spring, Md., a technical and environmental management consulting firm to the graphics arts industry. He is also a member of the PIA/GATF “Solutions on Site” consulting network. Contact him at (301) 598-7949.