Could we talk about the elephant in the room (or the elephant in Boyan’s boat for that matter)? Assuming The Ocean Cleanup succeeds in its mission and if we disregard the question if the plastic waste should be collected near-coast instead of at deep sea, the real question remains: how is the plastic waste further managed after collection (watch the TED-Talk below)?
The Ocean Cleanup ‘s feasibility study analyses break-even cost for the collected plastic debris:
• worst-case 5.26 EUR/kg
• base-case 4.53 EUR/kg
• best-case 3.66 EUR/kg
Even in the most optimistic scenario, the costs are very high. Too high for any application. No party in any impact generating value chain will be willing to buy this. But then, what’s plan B? Bailout by governments?
Something sensible needs to be done with the plastic debris, after recollection from sea. What are the options? Regardless of technical feasibility, only recycling and pyrolysis could be considered (landfill and incineration should be ruled out because of environmental considerations).
• Estimated max revenue for recycling: 0.10 EUR/kg
• Estimated max revenue for pyrolysis: 0.30 EUR/kg
Bryce Powel, CEO at New Green Technologies, specifies future pyrolysis ventures: “Pyrolysis entails thermochemical decomposition of materials in an oxygen-free environment (non-combustion). Differences in pyrolysis processes include: batch or continuous, method of heating (thermal or microwave). Microwave is well-known to heat far more efficiently than thermal (convection or conduction). The most cost effective solution to waste plastic is Continuous Microwave Pyrolysis.
Roughly, one line of continuous microwave pyrolysis equipment would process 11,500 tons/yr plastics into 2.2M gallons liquid fuel, 3M lbs syngas and 5,000 tons carbon. At $1.35/gal for oil and $100/ton for carbon, annual gross revenue would be about $3.5M + electricity from syngas.”
Clearly, the cost for #oceancleanup largely outbalances its future revenues. In other words: the debris has no real market value. Yet, doing nothing is not an option. Land, rivers and seas need to be cleaned. One way or another.
Besides public awareness and demonstrating the complexity of the plastic waste collection issues, The Ocean Cleanup demonstrates that virgin, oil-based plastics can only have low market prices because the costs for cleanup are not taken into account. As a result, nature and society pay the price. Food for thought for policy makers.
“Plastic is an incredible substance for the economy — and the worst substance possible for the environment”, says entrepreneur Andrew Forrest. In a conversation meant to spark debate, Forrest and head of TED Chris Anderson discuss an ambitious plan to get the world’s biggest companies to fund an environmental revolution — and transition industry towards getting all of its plastic from recycled materials, not from fossil fuels.