Columbia University: Non-recycled plastics could power 5.2 million homes annually

One Man’s Trash is Another Man’s Turbine

How often do you stop and think about the value of the materials you toss in the trash? Chances are, not too often. But even small changes in the way we dispose of everyday waste can mean big gains for the environment and the economy.

Take plastics. Many of the plastics we use every day can be readily recycled, and it’s up to each of us to make sure these valuable materials make it into recycling bins. By doing our part, we help conserve valuable materials, and we help recyclers – often small, local businesses – by making sure they get the raw materials they need to make useful products.

And even non-recycled plastics can be a valuable resource, according to a new study from Columbia University sponsored by the American Chemistry Council.

Scientists at Columbia University’s Earth Engineering Center found that converting non-recycled plastics to energy using recovery technologies that exist today could power 5.2 million households, or six million cars, annually.

The study also found that, if all the municipal solid waste produced in the United States – including all the non-recycled plastics discarded annually – were diverted from landfills to waste-to-energy (WTE) facilities, they could produce 162 MWh of electricity, or enough to power 16.2 million households every year.

Of course, plastics should be recycled whenever possible. But when plastics aren’t recycled, they should be converted into energy to power our homes, vehicles and businesses.

Marco J. Castaldi of Columbia University, one of the study’s authors, said it best:

Capturing the energy value of non-recycled plastics – and municipal solid waste in general – makes good sense because it provides a good domestic form of energy while minimizing impacts on the environment.

Recognizing the value of this domestic energy source, Capitol Hill officials announced last week that Congress will begin converting most of its non-recyclable solid waste into electricity. They expect to recover enough energy to power some of their busiest Congressional offices for months at a time.

Other industrialized nations, including several in Europe and Asia, are already using innovative conversion technologies on a commercial scale.

In the United States, there are currently 86 waste-to-energy plants that operate across 24 states.  As our nation seeks abundant sources of domestic alternative energy, we’d like to see that number grow.

Photo via Columbia University

The full Columbia University study, “Energy and Economic Value of Non-Recycled Plastics (NRP) and Municipal Solid Wastes (MSW) that are Currently Landfilled in the Fifty States,” summarizes information for the nation and each of the fifty states on quantities of non-recycled plastics available, municipal solid waste generation, and the potential energy and economic value of recovering this material.

Given that the study looked exclusively at municipal solid waste, the actual amount of recoverable materials in the United States and the energy values associated with them are likely greater than those included in the scope of this study.

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