Every day, Americans generate more than 4 lb of waste per person, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Despite the proliferation of recycling programs during the past three decades, more than half of all U.S. trash (135 million tons) still ends up in landfills. Recently, several industry professionals collaborated to explore an alternative use for plastic waste. The initiative, called the Energy Bag Pilot Program, demonstrated that certain plastics like juice pouches, candy wrappers, and plastic dinnerware that are not easily recyclable under traditional models, can be converted into synthetic crude oil for fuel.
Joining forces during the course of 2014, Dow Chemical Co., the Flexible Packaging Association, Republic Services, Agilyx, Reynolds Consumer Products, and The city of Citrus Heights, CA, created a collection pilot program intended to divert non-recycled plastics from landfills and to optimize their resource efficiency across the lifecycle. From June to August, approximately 26,000 households in Citrus Heights were provided with purple bags—known as “Energy Bags”—in which participants were asked to collect plastic items not currently eligible for mechanical recycling, so they could instead be diverted from the landfill and converted into energy. Collected items included juice pouches, candy wrappers, plastic pet food bags, frozen food bags, laundry pouches, and plastic dinnerware.
The purple Energy Bags were collected from homes during the community’s regular bi-weekly recycling program, sorted at the recycling facility, and sent to a plastics-to-energy plant. Using their patented thermal pyrolysis technology, which is complementary to current mechanical recycling programs, Agilyx converted the previously non-recycled plastics into high-value synthetic crude oil. The crude oil can be further refined and made into valuable products for everyday use, such as gasoline, diesel fuel, jet fuel, fuel oil, and lubricants, and can even be transformed back into plastic.
Due to the participation of the citizens of Citrus Heights, the results of the pilot show the potential for positive, long-term environmental results, including less landfill trash, more local energy resources, and less fossil fuel energy dependence.
During the three-month program, there were six collection cycles resulting in:
- Nearly 8,000 purple Energy Bags collected
- Approximately 6,000 lb of typically non-recycled items diverted from landfills
- 512 gal of synthetic crude oil produced from the conversion
- 30% citizen participation, at some point during the program
- 78% of citizens said they would be likely to participate if given another chance
“We were very proud to be the first community in America to participate in the Energy Bag initiative,” says Citrus Heights Mayor Sue Frost. “The program demonstrated how communities nationwide can benefit by diverting typically non-recycled plastics from landfills and give them new life as an energy resource.”
There are currently four commissioned commercial-scale pyrolysis plants operating in the U.S. with more planned. There are also numerous plants outside the U.S.
“This is an important milestone toward advancing change in the way we handle waste in the U.S.,” comments Jeff Wooster, Global Sustainability Leader, Dow Packaging and Specialty Plastics. “This pilot proved that resource recovery of non-recycled plastics is a viable municipal process. Our collaborative efforts brought us one step closer to reducing plastic waste by converting it to energy.”