Plasma gasification closes the loop (on sustainability)

The traditional approach of ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ needs to be replaced with a new paradigm focused on converting terminal packaging waste into recovered products and energy.

Bruce Welt, PhD, University of Florida
Bruce Welt, PhD, University of Florida

“Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” has had a good run, but it’s now time to accept that this approach is not sustainable. “Reduce” has always been justified on the production side, but material reduction creates costs on the post-consumer use side, where collection, handling, and processing costs are offset by material quantity and quality. It is time to rethink sustainability, or we risk condemning post-consumer processing to being unsustainable.

Designing packaging for “Reuse” directly contradicts “Reduce,” since more material is needed to toughen packaging for abusive reuse handling. Ultimately, the life of even the most stoutly designed reuse packaging ends, which brings us back to square one. Gimmicky reuse cases, such as turning juice pouches into grocery bags, might make for good press, but sensible folks understand that this is just a brief diversion on the ultimate path to a landfill. Newer efforts to “loop” reuse are likely to deliver more feel-good press than actual sustainability.

“Recycle” has never been a great option for materials that degrade when processed, such as fiber and polymers. Recycling of metals is economically advantageous and thus sustainable. However, recycling is a fool’s errand for fiber and polymers due to cumulative material degradation and poor quality.

Our failed vision of sustainability is leading to extreme policies such as product and material bans. Plastic straws and grocery bags are recent targets, but it would be irresponsible to think the bans will end there. If the packaging and Consumer Packaged Goods industries really care about impactful environmental stewardship as well as their own survival, then they must start questioning the premise of everything related to sustainability. It’s time for a new packaging sustainability paradigm. A paradigm that doesn’t include reduce, reuse, or recycle.

The new sustainability paradigm must promote improved economics for post-use collection and processing. It must discourage the pursuit of headlines and publicity for processes that are costly, environmentally impactful, and result in less-than-premium materials. The new approach must permit packaging companies to design packaging with as-needed combinations of materials, such as multilayer flexible films, without fear or guilt. Designers of packaging need to know that the terminal process for a product/package will deliver a sustainable benefit to humanity and the environment.

The Packaging Engineering program at the University of Florida is working to develop this new paradigm, and we welcome support and cooperation from the packaging industry. Educating the public and policymakers is as important as technological innovation. We believe the new paradigm should be solely focused on converting terminal packaging waste into clean energy in order to realize benefits from offsetting fossil fuels. Today, we see plasma gasification as a top contender for this new sustainability paradigm. Plasma gasification does not require sorting of materials, permits recovery of intermixed metals, and produces clean and valuable products such as clean-burning syngas, metal ingots, and glassy vitrified material useful in construction. Ongoing efforts toward renewable raw-materials sourcing will increasingly close the carbon loop.

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