As Presented in The Guardian article: A polystyrene container was buried and forgotten in the beach shores and was rediscovered by locals cleaning up the wake of a storm two months ago on a South Australian beach. Close inspection has yielded something questionable about the discarded filet-o-fish packaging. The polystyrene clamshell container bore an outdated logo and design, and yet, the packaging looks as if it was new.
But the packaging is not new – McDonald’s stopped using these containers in 1991, thus it had drifted in the Gulf St Vincent and beyond or buried within the sand dunes for at least 2 ½ decades! By the life cycle standards of plastics, this container was just beginning its journey. Polystyrene foam has a lifespan of 500 years before it breaks down into chemicals that far longer than that.
Prof Thomas Maschmeyer of the University of Sydney has worked out a way to replace plastic. The professor’s renewable energy startup “Licella” is taking a more polished approach in incinerating waste. He’s pioneering a method in transforming end-of-life plastics as a substitute in the form of bio-crude petroleum.
Renewable Chemical Technologies Ltd, which is backed by UK energy investor Armstrong Energy is investing $10 million or €5 million into Licella’s plan to build the world’s first commercial hydrothermal plastic waste upgrading plant. Licella will develop and test a recycling plant in Australia before shipping it to the United Kingdom, with the first plant to be integrated into an existing facility which Licella hopes will be the first of many.
The goal of the partnership is for RCTL to develop projects to convert end-of-life plastics into high-quality oil, which is suitable for blending into standard hydrocarbon fuels, using Licella’s proprietary catalytic hydrothermal reactor platform that has been developed with the partnership of the University of Sydney. Maschmeyer said that the partnership will deal with the issue of what to do with end-of-life plastics and the remnants of mixed plastics with small amounts of paper and cardboard that are left over from more recyclable components.
Air New Zealand and Virgin Australia are interested in using these biofuels and the process can also turn waste products from the paper and pulp industry into bio-crude. This has also attracted Canadian pulp and paper producer “Canfor” to develop a full-scale commercial operation.
However, experts also warned that bio-crudes will also have some environmental consequences. Dr Tom Beer, an honorary fellow at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation and the former leader of the transport biofuels stream of the CISRO energy transformed flagship. He said that turning plastics into bio-crude does present an environmental trade-off in respect of carbon emissions.
Maschmeyer said that Licella has managed to modify their processing to dramatically reduce carbon emissions through a groundbreaking technique that involves extracting hydrogen from water and will have as much lower carbon footprint that a common crude oil processing.