Canadian Plastics' Wilkinson makes case for converting plastic to energy in North America

Could non-recycled plastics provide a cost-effective alternative to conventional energy? During today's OnPoint, Greg Wilkinson, president and CEO of the Canadian Plastics Industry Association and an adviser to the American Chemistry Council, discusses a new Columbia University study that found non-recycled plastics in the United States could provide enough energy to fuel 6 million cars annually and enough electricity to power 5.2 million households. Wilkinson addresses some of the environmental and economic concerns with waste-to-fuel practice.


Monica Trauzzi: Hello and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is Greg Wilkinson, president and CEO of the Canadian Plastics Industry Association and an advisor to the American Chemistry Council. Greg, thanks for coming on the show.

Greg Wilkinson: Thank you for having me.

Monica Trauzzi: Greg, a new study out of Columbia University found that non-recycled plastics in the U.S. could provide energy to fuel 6 million cars annually and enough electricity to power 5.2 million households. Why haven't we seen this waste-to-fuel idea take off here in the U.S.?

Greg Wilkinson: Well, I think, Monica, it's a fundamental mindset that we in North America have about these materials. We think of them as waste. We think of them as something that we need to get rid of or hide or bury. And in other locations they think of them quite differently. So, Europe for example, there are 400 energy recovery plans. There are only 86 in the U.S. Scandinavia has as many energy recovery plans as the U.S. does. So it's a mindset. Is the relaxation that this is a safe, clean, reliable energy technology.

Monica Trauzzi: How energy intensive is plastic as a material?

Greg Wilkinson: Well, surprisingly, the plastic that is left over after recycling, and, of course, recycling is the first priority after use and nine out of 10 Americans have access to plastics recycling today and there are 4 billion pounds of plastic that are recycled, but after that, the plastic has 25 percent more energy capacity than coal.

Monica Trauzzi: And one of the things we've heard here in the United States against this waste-to-energy idea is that it could potentially have a negative impact on recycling efforts. Do you see that at all? Could it impact those efforts?

Greg Wilkinson: Well, again, recycling is the first priority and the answer is an unequivocal no. The data shows, and there have been studies around the world on this, that when people have access to energy recovery, in fact, their recycling goes up. And in the U.S. that's by 5 percent. So communities that have energy recovery, their recycling rates are 5 percent higher than other communities.

Monica Trauzzi: So, what's the process then for converting the plastics into energy?

Greg Wilkinson: There are three basic groupings, the municipal solid waste energy recovery and those are those 86 plants, the traditional technology. It's been around for a while, very mature, very reliable. The next grouping is something called solid recovered fuel and an example of that is taking mixed plastics and turning them into a fuel cube and then substituting that fuel cube for a dirtier fuel, like coal or petroleum, coke, in a cement kiln or an industrial boiler.

Monica Trauzzi: How cost effective is this practice and is it cheaper just to leave the plastic in the landfill?

Greg Wilkinson: Well, it's different in different locations, but the calculus is fundamentally different because when you mine coal you have to pay for that process and then you pay for the coal. In this case, the utility gets paid to take the feedstock, to take the material that otherwise would go to landfill.

Monica Trauzzi: So, the report was sponsored by the American Chemistry Council. They obviously, you know, would like to see more of this in the United States. How do you turn what's being spoken about in the report into action here in the U.S.?

Greg Wilkinson: I think the first step is that mindset that we talked about. That we need to think, in North America, in the U.S. particularly, that this is a resource that we can recover. That's the first step. Then we need to think of ways to level the playing field so that energy recovery is thought of in the same way as wind and solar and has access to the same programs. It's important to make energy recovery part of the national debate about a balanced portfolio of energy.

Monica Trauzzi: New York City had spoken about starting to use this practice and they ran into some NIMBY issues. How significant of a problem is that here in the U.S.?

Greg Wilkinson: I think wherever you have development you're going to have concerns expressed and some opposition. I think we should look for inspiration to some of the European cities that have been doing this for a little bit longer. I'd use Copenhagen and Vienna as examples. When you go to those cities you see that not only have they embraced the technology, but they put those facilities right in the heart of the city, so that they're close to people. And the reason they do that is so that they can take full advantage of both the heat and the electrical power that's generated. But more fundamentally, because they trust the technology. They know that it is safe, clean, and reliable.

Monica Trauzzi: But are there emissions associated with the incinerators that would need to be used for this?

Greg Wilkinson: There are absolutely and there are emissions from all of these processes, from coal or natural gas. But the emissions from energy recovery are significantly lower than from coal-fired facilities.

Monica Trauzzi: OK, we'll end it there. Thank you for coming on the show, nice to see you.

Greg Wilkinson: Thank you.

Monica Trauzzi: And thanks for watching. We'll see you back here tomorrow.

[End of Audio]



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