Plastic to hydrogen: tackling global plastic waste

Myles Kitcher, Managing Director at Peel NRE – part of Peel L&P – looks at the plastic-to-hydrogen technology that could help tackle the global issue of waste plastic.

Earlier this month the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) estimated that the global use of plastics is set to triple in less than four decades. Currently, nearly 100 million tonnes of plastic waste is either mismanaged or allowed to leak into the environment, a figure set to double by 2060. The scale of the waste plastic challenge is huge.

Here in the UK, we produce around 5 million tonnes of plastic every year with only around a third sent for recycling. This leaves millions of tonnes which are either incinerated, sent to landfill or exported overseas.

Reducing the amount of plastic we use in society has to be the long-term solution, especially in reducing our country’s dependence on single use plastics, but we’re far from being able to eliminate plastic.

In many instances, plastic will continue to be the most sustainable and cost-effective option. There are certain industries, such as the medical sector, where plastic will be needed for the long term. In the automotive sector, lightweight plastic parts in cars help to reduce fuel consumption and insulation in buildings makes them far more energy efficient.

Reducing the amount of plastic we use in society has to be the long-term solution.

We should absolutely be doing everything we can to reduce the amount of plastic we produce and working with retailers, food producers and others to come up with more sustainable options. But we also need innovative solutions to deal with the waste plastic that we can’t avoid, as even multi-use plastics will come to the end of their lives eventually.

If these solutions can ultimately provide value to waste plastic we can then start to look at how we can remove the generations of plastic that have accumulated in the environment. Whilst this doesn’t achieve the ultimate aim of elimination, it can play an important role in delivering a low carbon, cleaner future.

That’s what we’re looking to do at Protos, where we’re developing the UK’s first Plastic Park. Creating a mini circular economy the park will cluster together a range of innovative processing and treatment technologies which will maximise recycling and recover value from what’s left. For instance, a specialist Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) facility will recycle plastic bottles, whereas a Polymer Laminate Recycling Facility will provide a solution for crisp packets and baby food pouches.

It’s also set to be the home for the UK’s first plastic to hydrogen facility, using technology developed by Powerhouse Energy. It will provide a local source of hydrogen from the plastic that can’t be recycled, producing nearly three-quarters less carbon than waste incineration.

The pioneering technology also helps further up the chain.

The technology has the potential to provide a solution and value for end-of-life plastic encourages the sorting of plastic, which means more recycling.

In addition to providing a sustainable solution for unrecyclable plastic, the technology can contribute to the development of a hydrogen economy that is both lower carbon and also helps to provide cleaner air in our towns and cities. With zero emissions at the point of use, hydrogen provides the ideal clean fuel for hard-to-decarbonise sectors including transport, saving up to 125% CO2 when compared to carbon emissions from diesel.

This is a community-based solution requiring a small land area to build that helps to deal with local waste, provides a local, decentralised source of hydrogen, and improves local air quality. We see communities across the UK benefiting from this innovative and sustainable technology.

At Peel NRE, we’re looking to roll out the Powerhouse Energy technology with up to 70 sites across the UK which could produce enough hydrogen to fill nearly 5 million buses. The technology has the potential to support policy objectives across various Government departments, including sustainable waste management, energy security, transport decarbonisation, improving local air quality, and reaching net zero carbon emissions.

Waste management technology needs to be fit for purpose.

It can also support the Government’s levelling up agenda with a national investment opportunity of over £2bn with many of the facilities planned for the north of the UK. We need the right policy climate to support these ambitions and allow innovation at a local level. There needs to be a level playing field for all genres of hydrogen production which holistically takes into account the wider environmental, economic, and societal benefits.

Technologies such as this are likely to be transitional; and, so they should be. Transitional in the way that the plastics market will change over time, with fewer plastics produced and more recycled. And transitional in that we should always be striving to use the best technology available.

We should be developing waste management technology that is fit for purpose and new technologies will continue to be developed to improve environmental outcomes. This is why simply saying that we have sufficient waste management capacity can never be the answer. We must continually innovate and improve.

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