Making plastic waste valuable: turn it into fuel?

Most developed economies are experiencing problems with plastic waste. Prior to 2018, much of it was sent to China, in principle to be recycled. In practice, much was burnt or simply ended up in the oceans. While other export destinations in Asia or Africa have taken some of the slack since the Chinese ban, tighter regulations in many of these countries have rapidly been introduced. In the longer term, therefore, dealing with plastic waste domestically is going to take a far higher priority.

Key to this is seeing plastic waste as a commodity with a useful purpose and therefore value, instead of just an environmental problem to be dealt with. Only in this way will the issue attract sufficient investment and industry attention.

Companies are already looking at the potential of the sector. One such is Brightmark Energy, based in San Francisco, California. The company, founded only in 2016, has developed a plastics renewal technology which can convert plastic waste into fuel, wax and a range of other useful end-products. The company already has one US$138 million facility under construction. This is based in Ashley, Indiana, and is expected to begin operations in 2020. It will have an annual capacity of 100,000 tons (US) of plastic. According to Brightmark, one advantage of its processes is that a single stream of mixed plastics can be used, removing the need to pre-sort waste and remove non-recyclable plastics.

The Indiana plant has experienced delays; construction was originally due to begin in 2016, but ground was broken on the site only in May 2019. Now that has happened, however, Brightmark is looking at further sites. On 5th November 2019, Brightmark announced a US-wide request for proposals (RFP) process for the site selection for locations suitable for its next set of recycling facilities. The nationwide search will begin on 19th November with a webinar and formal indication of interest submission for interested communities. Brightmark expects to invite up to 25 communities to submit formal RFP responses. Following evaluation of these, final sites will be chosen in late first quarter or early second quarter of 2020.

There is clearly growing interest in the issue of plastic waste in the US, and a rising awareness of the need for– and value of –  domestic means of dealing with it. Brightmark is not alone. AcuComm currently covers 45 active investments in the US plastic waste sector, including those listed above. Click here to check out the whole list.