Note: For some mysterious reason known to the gods of cyberspace, my pieces on processing of plastic waste vanished from here. I am combining both pieces and re-writing this from my notes.
When processes are dealt with in a holistic fashion, they have a visible and positive environmental and economic impact.
Quoting from an earlier piece: We have a tendency to view things in isolation, whereas everything in the universe is inter-connected. What is considered as ‘waste’ is the starting point for something that is useful, and so on, till we arrive at a state of zero-waste. Nature does not waste anything, only man does.
So a solution is produced for one ‘problem’, without taking into account interconnections with that ‘problem’, and in the end we have produced more problems than solutions.
Dealing with plastic waste is a world-wide problem and has solutions. Banning plastics is not a solution. Dealing with plastic waste as a resource is. There is a lot of it already accumulated, and more being generated every day. Taking a somewhat contrarian view I am proposing that till alternatives are developed for using plastic packaging and products, plastic waste be used as a valuable resource, which is why this piece is titled, ‘Process — Do Not Recycle’.
Recycling creates it own set of problems, as parts of the unused waste then either clog up drains and waterways, or is dumped in landfills.
Processing on the other hand, (properly done), converts the plastic waste to usable products, leaving no waste for a landfill or polluting the environment. ‘Properly done’ is the keyword here. Like all processes, proper protocols have to be followed, for the desired results. It will be noticed that wherever problems have arisen, it is due to cutting corners, whether in the process of collection or in processing.
Let us see what is possible when plastic waste is processed. This includes all kinds of plastic wastes including synthetic fabrics.
One tonne of plastic waste has the potential to:
generate 1 MW of electricity from waste heat generated during the process of conversion;
generate around 900 litres of fuels, the final products — diesel, aviation turbine fuel, kerosene, fuel oil — determined by the processes used, which are currently available;
generate cooling, air conditioning, or heat, depending on the location.
The properly done processing means the plastic waste is converted in a sealed building, where the air from the inside of the facility is fed through a scrubber, before it is released into the atmosphere. This is not a process for cutting corners, where accountancy procedures are allowed to override technological and safety considerations.
Employment generation, direct and indirect, starting from the collection process, processing, and distribution (of fuels).
No plastic waste in the streets, drains, waterways, which means cleaner rivers and oceans, and no plastic waste going to landfills.
Creation of value in terms of electricity generation, and fuels.
To those countries engaged in a debate on exporting their plastic waste, I’d say don’t. Process it, don’t throw away a valuable resource by exporting it.
I have not touched on household and commercial organic waste, which can be used to generate Methane (to electricity), Manure, and Water. Again zero waste goes to a landfill.
Similarly I haven’t touched on cotton products and textiles, which can be processed for bio-ethanol.
The proposition is, that it is possible to have a zero-waste situation if the waste problem is tackled in a holistic manner.
[Note: This article was written in 2016. The propositions advanced still remain valid as of 2019]
How are plastic waste, growing hemp, organic farming, and water, connected?
The fabric of life is built up of many threads, which are supposed to combine to make a wondrous fabric. However the generation of waste and dealing with it, makes an ugly tear in the fabric, and patchwork does not work.
We have a tendency to view things in isolation, whereas everything in the universe is inter-connected. What is considered as ‘waste’ is the starting point for something that is useful, and so on, till we arrive at a state of zero-waste. Nature does not waste anything, only man does.
So a solution is produced for one ‘problem’, without taking into account interconnections with that ‘problem’, and in the end we have produced more problems than solutions.
Shall be joining some dots to put some things into perspective. As always, the viewpoint is India-centric, but the solutions can be applied anywhere.
Plastic ‘Waste’ to no landfill and no pollution
This is a world-wide problem and has solutions. Banning plastics is not a solution. Dealing with plastic waste as a resource is. Taking a somewhat contrarian view I am proposing that till alternatives are developed to the use of plastic packaging and products, plastic waste be used as a valuable resource.
What we see around us are two things, civic illiteracy which makes us throw things (especially polythene bags, plastic products, paper, etc.) on the streets, and civic inefficiency in collection of that waste.
Political parties display a lot of zeal when it comes to renaming cities. That zeal is missing when it concerns improving the quality of life of citizens. If political parties had to pay from their coffers for properties vandalised and damaged, business lost, and the cost of re-printing stationery of hundreds of thousands of businesses, they would lose a lot of their enthusiasm for re-naming. Airports and stations are given grand names, which are then reduced to acronyms, and the places are still referred to by their old names.
As per a survey conducted by Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) in 60 cities of the country, the quantum of plastic waste generation is estimated to be 15,342.6 tonnes per day, or 5,600,000 tonnes per year. The total may be much more.
“We are the first to have the capability to convert 1 tonne of broken buckets, mugs, toothpaste tubes, bottle caps and other polyolefin products into 850 litres of the cleanest grade of diesel. This is the best news yet for the planet this year because henceforth plastic waste will be viewed more as a resource than a nuisance,” said Dr Harsh Vardhan at the Institute of Petroleum campus in Dehradun on 17 April 2015. (Source)
The diesel thus produced burns more cleanly than the diesel produced from crude oil.
Now to see the potential of that amount of plastic waste for India. That 5.6 million tonnes of ‘waste’ translates to 4,760,000,000 litres (or 4.76 billion litres) according to the IIP projections. The Indian Railways consume 2 billion litres annually. Commercially available plants produce ca. 600–900 litres/tonne of plastic, which would give us 3.36–5.06 billion litres. The diesel so produced, needs to be viewed as a strategic resource. Viewing it in a different way, of the total amount of diesel consumed, consumption by the railways is 3.24%, and buses 9.55%. The agriculture sector is a major consumer with about 13% of the total consumption accounted for by it. Within agriculture, the consumption is as follows: tractors (7.4%), pump-sets (2.9%) and agriculture implements (2.7%). (Source).
Also generated is 200 kilogrammes of petcoke per tonne of plastic.
Processes are also available for complete combustion of the plastic waste with no waste leftover.
A company based in Scotland offers this process for what it calls End of Life Plastics, for producing alternative synthetic fuels, which are direct and commercially profitable liquid fuels that are direct import substitutes for fossil fuels. The have created from 1 tonne of end of life plastic, approximately 1,000 litres of liquid fuel:
— 700 litres Diesel,
— 100 litres of Kerosene,
— 200 litres of Lite Oil.
Delhi generates 251,850 tonnes of plastic every year (CPCB), which means there is a potential of 151.11 million litres of diesel and 50,370 tonnes of petcoke. Used without gasification, the petcoke generated can be used to run a 10–12 MWe plant, as per the figures of consumption for Reliance’s proposed 4×90 MWe plant, at Mora Village, in Surat district.
The nature of the problem is brought out in these images. Civic apathy by citizens, no segregation and collection, and inefficient municipal services, which do not allow the waste to be used as a resource. (The cows should be in a shelter and not eating rubbish. Easier to protest rather than to take up the responsibility of looking after them). So it is not plastic waste, (which includes bags), which is the culprit, and as mentioned above banning it is not the solution.
Plastic waste needs to be segregated at three levels:
(1) Homes: Bag to collect milk poly-packs, polythene bags, disposable plates and cups, water bottles, any other items like plastic wrapping used for packaging.
(2) Roadside vendors, restaurants, places of worship, shopping complexes, market places, Parks: Use red coloured bins, since the volume will be larger.
(3) Roads and streets: Red coloured bins with an efficient collection system. Involve NGO’s who can coordinate resource collectors (waste collectors).
Once bins are made available on roadsides, market places, office and shopping complexes, parks, etc., implement littering fines. Involve ex-servicemen here. (CCTV systems like the ones to be installed in Delhi, should prevent theft of bins).
Commercially available plants, with a capacity of processing 10 tonnes of plastic daily, with an output of 6,000–9,000 litres of diesel are available in India. The plants costs Rs 10–12 crores (approx 1.47–1.76 million US$), and have a payback time of 3 years.
Solution: Delhi generates at the municipality level 689.5 metric tonnes every day, (CPCB). Assuming 90% of this can be processed, Delhi would require about 62 plants of this size, so that the collecting area for that plant is within a 5–7 kilometre radius. These can be distributed all around Delhi, rather than having two or three huge plants.
Result: There will be no plastic waste to throw, which means no clogging of drains, no animals or birds ingesting it, and nothing going to a landfill. Clean diesel will become available, which can be used by a wide range of users. This would also be an employment generator.
However there is a bigger opportunity, to solve a bigger problem. Plastic waste in the oceans.
India can use this method and start an initiative in the oceans surrounding it. It would have three spin-offs: (1) the oceans would be cleaner, which would mean more and healthier fish, and marine life in general, (2) it would get raw material for its plastic-to-diesel industry, and (3) fishing boats can get their requirements of diesel from this source. (However should other countries decide to go in for the same initiative, there would be need to define geographical boundaries of operation).
Growing Hemp (IH)
The Hemp referred to here is Industrial Hemp. The reason why it figures here is because it is a source for bio-plastics, along with more than 25,000 products which can be made from it. Since we started this article with plastic, we shall keep our main focus on plastics which can be made with hemp.
Henry Ford swinging an axe at his 1941 car to demonstrate the toughness of the plastic trunk door made of soybean and hemp. (From the collections of Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village.)
Source: www. dfwnormal.org
In case you are not aware, aside from plastics, Hemp can be used for:
Unfortunately even though the government is aware to some extent of the uses of hemp, there has been no significant investment in the growing of hemp. As things stand, it would require a significant amount of investment to get the whole hemp eco-system to be established.
The highlights of the article were total conversion of kitchen and organic waste to electricity and liquid fertilizer.
At his juncture I would like to differ with those advocating using kitchen waste for composting. Composting is good in its place, but can only be used for growing activities. Whereas, the method I have advocated, provides electricity, as well as organic fertilizer. When we say use waste as a resource, then we need to extract the maximum potential from that resource. Composting does not do that.
I had mentioned Urban Farming in that article as well. This would utilize a part of the organic fertilizer and provide organically grown fresh vegetables and greens in each locality at fair prices. There is no reason that organically grown vegetables should be sold at premium prices. Also vegetable supplies would not be hit in case of agitations and strikes.
Any surpluses can be preserved by organizations such as the one below, so that there is no wastage of fruits and vegetables, which according to some estimates is around Rs 40,000 crore per annum.
Source: Adi Ayur Foods and Beverages Private Limited
This is a picture of dead fish in Ulsoor Lake in Bangalore which appeared in the press. One of the reasons cited is the discharge of untreated sewage into the lake.
Having lived in Bangalore, (renaming doesn’t sit well having used that name for over 6 decades), from 1953 to 1957, and visiting the lake a few time every month during my stay there, remember Ulsoor Lake as a beautiful place. Again a victim of civic illiteracy and civic inefficiency.
The solution for this situation, as it is all over India, is to treat sewage at localised points all over a city, and not take the sewage to a few ‘big’ sewage plants. Have a large number of water bodies for recharging ground water, as well as water sources. (Heavily penalize any real estate development over or near a water body).
This what environmentally insensitive governments have done to what was once called Najafgarh Jheel (Lake), which is another name for the Sahibi river, a tributary of the river Yamuna, which once occupied more than 300 square kilometres of area in Southwest Delhi. Read more here.
Why can’t our drainage channels, (in Delhi) be waterways like this one in Holland,
instead of being like this.
According to International Wastewater Systems: Sewage is the Ultimate Renewable Energy Source. According to their site, ‘In the search for new and sustainable energy sources few people realize that there is an energy source flowing beneath the surface of our cities. Sewage! This abundant, free energy source remains mostly untapped.’
Here is a video presentation of two of their installations.
And here is one from the Arizona State University titled ‘From Wastewater to Renewable Energy’ (June 2012). When algae are put to work cleaning up wastewater, they can produce biofuel at the same time. A team of ASU graduate students is working with the Arizona Centre for Algae Technology and Innovation to clean up the environment while creating clean, renewable energy. Their project received initial funding from the EPA’s P3 program (People, Prosperity and the Planet). The video is produced and edited by Kirk Davis, Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development. Additional photography by Keith Jennings and Matthew Larsen.
Solution: I don’t see municipalities investing in these processes. (Delhi recently experienced a strike by sanitary workers on account of non-payment of salaries). Companies need to come forward with entirely new PPP business models which have to break free of tripping and tipping contracts. Municipalities and land-owning authorities have to accord priority to allotting land for sewage processing facilities, and other waste-processing facilities, rather than shopping malls. (Not much use having shiny malls with no water or power).
Result: Availability of potable water, groundwater recharge, source of renewable energy for power, source of biofuel. (Tax concessions, such as no excise duty on fuels produced from waste, like the one given to biodiesel).
Citizens and the government will have to think very differently, if they want an energy rich, (the first building block of development), pollution free nation. Those beautiful smart cities and towns being thought of will have to use these processes, to remain smart, otherwise they will just be real estate ‘developments’, which will enrich a few people and impoverish the nation.
All these areas would present an excellent area of investment for humanitarian funds. These are all community focused activities, with the accent on the community rather than profits. Would be pleased to provide advice and support to any such investor/s.
Every story has a starting point. Seemingly disparate elements are brought together, and a picture which has substance emerges, literally from thin air. I keep emphasizing that there is nothing called waste, but a resource, with each by-product of a process being a raw material for another process. This calls for a radical shift in mindset and throwing aside of in-the-box thinking with regard to the resource called waste. There is no choice but to think of radically new solutions, if the human race is to survive, healthily. Unhealthily, it will become extinct.
I’m taking forward the point that was made in my previous piece, (‘Kitchen “Waste”, Surplus Power, and No Pollution’). The trigger for this piece was a technical article in semiconductor-today.com, regarding the combining of Aluminium Oxide (Al2O3) and Silicon Dioxide (SiO2) for a new type of LED, capable of emitting double the amount of light as existing ones, by Chinese scientists.
We have reached a particular stage of economic and industrial development, in India and China, which can’t be rolled back. However, some of the effects of development have reached a disastrous stage, because shareholder priority has been given more importance than people priority, economic benefits over health. The emphasis solely on profits has created situations which could have been avoided. In most cases the companies and governments involved have been aware of the consequences of their actions, and are only galvanized into preventive modes when there is a public outcry which cannot be ignored, or a disastrous situation which cannot be “contained”. (You can be a billionaire or even a trillionaire, but in the end you can’t eat money, [you require farmers, herders, and fishermen], and you can’t drink money, [you require unpolluted lakes, rivers, and aquifers]. Poison the land and sources of water and everything dies).
An immediate destructive process that comes to mind — where the greed for profits by oil companies has outweighed disastrous consequences — is what is known as hydraulic fracturing or fracking. Sounds very innocuous. The consequences of fracking for human, animal and bovine populations, and agriculture have been poisoning of ground water and triggering of earthquakes. Between 17 June and 24 June, 2015, Oklahoma was jolted by 35 earthquakes greater than magnitude 3.0 due to fracking — see details here), and earlier in 2015 there was a 4.6 magnitude earthquake in Northern British Columbia — see detailshere.
Hydraulic fracturing involves pumping water and chemicals deep into the earth to fracture shale rock beds and release natural gas for extraction. (Brennan Linsley/The Associated Press)
To come back to to the start of this piece, using “waste” as a resource. We’ll use as an example a process which figures prominently in all discussions regarding pollution and climate change — coal-fired thermal power plants. These plants have been blamed as the leading source of industrial pollution all over the world.
They can’t be wished away, because without electricity, modern life as we know it would come to a grinding halt. It has been reported that China is shutting down four large coal-fired plants, and replacing them with gas-fired ones. Not a solution really because that brings us back to fracking, which as the world has realized is a very destructive process.
Coal-fired plants generate as a by-product a very fine ash called fly ash. Which brings us to the main element of our story, using mountains of fly ash all over the world as a resource for creating valuable products.
According to a report of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, the amount of fly ash expected to be generated by the end of 2015 in India, is likely to touch 200 million tonnes per annum (mtpa). It is a toxic pollutant dumped in what are euphemistically called “fly ash ponds”. This is a favourite response of the human species, dumping. Dump ash in ponds, dump nuclear waste in caverns, dump household and other waste in landfills, dump effluents in rivers, and so on. Dumping doesn’t eliminate the problem, it only creates another series of problems. [I have not touched upon the quantities of fly ash in USA, UK, China, and other countries].
Companies have been prodded to use it for building blocks, bricks, and tiles, but the off-take still remains limited. However, it can be used for making more valuable materials than bricks and tiles, should people liberate themselves from thinking in isolation about processes. (As environmentally wise people keep saying, plan projects to use all by-products as resources, so that there is zero-waste).
I am presenting one possibility. Fly ash particles consist of silicon dioxide, alumina, oxides of iron, calcium, and magnesium and toxic heavy metals like lead, arsenic, cobalt, and copper. Which leads us to what we see below, gems, and what are gems doing in a piece on using “waste” products as resources, and what is their connection with fly ash? The short answer is, that the chemical composition of what we call gems, are made up of all the metals and materials present in fly ash. The thrust of my argument here is to convert fly ash, into something of high value.
No! I am not being woolly-headed.
RCA filed a patent way back in 1948 for producing synthetic gemstones. Quoting from two patent documents, filed decades ago:
1. The crystals prepared by the present process possess a unique interstitial or superlattice structure not found in any prior art synthetic or naturally occurring crystalline compound. The hardness and index of refraction of the present crystals is considerably greater than the garnets which also contain CaO and SiO as major constituents. Hence, while the present crystals may be prepared from inexpensive raw materials as may be the garnets, the extreme hardness and brilliance of my crystals permit their use as heavy-duty abrasives and as decorative stones of gem quality.
2. . . . aluminium oxide, calcium carbonate and silicon dioxide were placed in a silica crucible and melted with an oxygen rock gas torch. The clear melt was then permitted to cool slowly in a fire brick furnace. The result was the formation of a series of large, clear crystals having a weight of up to 50 carats. These crystals were cut and polished using conventional gem-cutting techniques to prepare gem quality stones having an extremely high degree of brilliance.
To give you a sense of perspective, the time taken to treat corundum, Al2O3, (to make Rubies) is 8–12 hours non-stop at 1800–2000° C. Sapphires are also composed of Al2O3. The presence of different minerals and metals give them their colours.
This leads us to a renewable energy technology, solar, for dealing with a waste by-product of a non-renewable energy process, coal, the Solar Furnace.
Image credit Florian.
This is the largest Solar Furnace in the world at Odeillo in the Pyrénées-Orientales in France, opened in 1970. It employs an array of plane mirrors to gather sunlight, reflecting it onto a larger curved mirror. The Solar Furnace consists of 10,000 concave mirrors that reflect and focus the sun’s rays on a square diagonal of 40 inches. Diameter mirror construction is 54 metres. An array of mirrors acts as a parabolic reflector, concentrating and focussing light. The temperature at the focal point, can reach 3500° C with optimum positioning of the mirrors.
So a process using renewable energy can be used to create value out of a polluting by-product of non-renewable process, considered a waste material.
There are a lot of creative minds out there. I’m sure they can come up with a whole range of high value products which can be made from fly ash.
All I’m doing is bringing the elements of a story together.
To come back to pollution from coal. The replacement of coal-fired plants would be ultimately renewable energy plants. Coal plants can be made non-polluting, but the investment required to retro-fit them may not be available with the owners. It would involve using the “waste” thermal energy from the cooling towers (to cut down on the water required for cooling), and exhaust stacks. Recovery of syn-gas from the smoke of the exhaust stacks, and scrubbing of the leftover exhaust gas, so that one has near zero-pollution. Underground gasification of coal as a process is as disastrous as fracking. [The argument used here is that these processes are “controlled”. Nuclear reactors also use “controlled” fission, excepting when they go out of control, and their disastrous and poisonous effects last for generations].
So heating of boilers with gas instead of coal would be a transitory solution, but better than using coal. A big positive, no ash generation, so one polluting by-product is eliminated this way.
Solar appears to be promising, I say promising because conversion efficiencies are not what they should be, power is available for a limited duration, and a lot of energy — mental, physical, industrial — is being expended in trying to develop storage solutions for non-sunlight hours. (I have followed solar developments for over four decades now, and I think I know a little bit about it).
Power can be generated from wind for practically 24 hours, but this source is locational. The factor of lower wind speeds can be dealt with by using installations based on the Venturi principle, with the advantage of generators being placed underground. This particular innovation makes it possible to spread wind generators over a wider geographical area, and does away with the eyesore of huge towers, noise pollution from them, and fatal danger to bird populations.
A non-glamorous low-tech—high-tech non-polluting solution, which will be cheaper than solar or wind, for 24-hour power generation has been suggested by me in my previous piece on this blog, (with the advantage of no landfills).
Air Pollution: Smog
For many years now the refrain has been, can smog be far behind now that winter is here. [Specific to Delhi, but equally applicable to Beijing or any other city].
Personal or public vehicles using internal combustion engines cannot be wished away, till the time non-polluting engines using electricity, or hydrogen, or something still to be developed, replace them. An excellent public transportation system, with last-mile connectivity has to be in place, to encourage people not to use personal vehicles. [Vehicle manufacturers and governments have to get together on this].
Adopting an adversarial policy by saying “ban this”, “close that” or “finish that”, will not work till alternatives are suggested and put in place. Otherwise instead of cooperation, it pits the users against the environmentalists, and creates situations which do not solve the problem at hand. One can stop something that has not been started, but one requires solutions where something has been in existence for a period of time. Otherwise we will have confrontations and no solutions.
The only way is to put in place short-term solutions to deal with the problem, till the long-term change takes place.
An example. Banning polythene bags. Won’t work. What about all the other plastic articles, why just one item. They should be banned too. Let their use continue till an alternative is in place. The immediate solution is to have a good collection system for all plastic waste. Involve NGO’s and rag pickers (I prefer calling them resource-collectors) — municipalities have totally failed here, and send the waste to be converted to diesel. This has to be a combined effort of education of citizens, (the majority lack basic civic sense), fines for littering, and a good collection system. For instance around 25,00,000 litres of milk is distributed in plastic poly-packs everyday in Delhi. This is a valuable resource being wasted. The diesel produced can be distributed in rural areas for powering pump-sets and other applications. It burns cleaner than the diesel made from crude oil.
Long-term: India has done nothing about encouraging the growth of Industrial Hemp as a crop, from which bio-degradable plastics can be made, (amongst 25,000 other items like paper and textiles). Hemp paper can be recycled 7 times against 3 times for paper made from wood pulp. (See here to find out more).
Hemp is the miracle plant of our time, breathing in 4x the carbon dioxide (CO2) of trees during it’s quick 12-14 week growing cycle. Trees take 20 years to mature vs 4 months for Industrial Hemp! Our forests are being cut down 3x faster than they can grow! One acre of hemp produces as much cellulose fibre pulp as 4.1 acres of trees!!! (Dewey & Merrill. Bulletin #404. U.S. Dept. of Age. 1916) (Source)
A possible solution for smog: The incidence of smog is usually at its worst on major arterial roads. I am putting forth an idea, more for the purpose of people suggesting better solutions, rather than just starting a discussion.
We can have towers about 22 metres high, with a diameter twice that of a mobile transmitting tower, with inlet slots on top, located at a distance of 500 metres from each other. The bottom of the towers can have large fans which will suck in the air. A combination of electrostatic precipitators, filters, and a scrubbing tank, will be used to filter the particulate matter, and absorb the nitrates and other matter in the air, before it is released back.
All items are available, metal tower fabrication, fans, electrostatic precipitators, filters and scrubbing tanks. The tower is the only portion which will be visible above ground, the rest of the installation would be underground, so no obstruction for pedestrians or traffic. The particulate matter, (whatever it be), can be collected and be treated the same way as fly ash, to produce a product of value, whether it be an abrasive or a synthetic gemstone.
The whole pollution control process should be viewed as a huge business opportunity, or a series of opportunities, with profit not being the sole motive. People value before shareholder value.
Before ending this piece, a headline from The Hindu, dateline 25 December, 2015.
The emphasis you will notice is on the possible economic loss, but not on presenting solutions, which will keep the industry viable and also pollution free. Possibly because no one has put in any thinking on the recoverable value of the “waste”, or developing pollution free processes.
This mindset will have to change if we are to have pollution free processes and systems.
This is a sentiment that I identify with very strongly.
“Drastic, revolutionary, disruptive answers to existing problems very rarely come from existing channels or are identified by those who are embedded in the particular sector experiencing the problem.” Chris, Capital Exploits