A solution for Hong Kong’s plastic waste crisis: turn it into fuel
Ian Brownlee says as Hong Kong throws away more and more plastic while recycling rates dip, it should look to gas plasma technology to solve the problem
July was a critical month for plastic pollution. Plastic waste now has catastrophic implications for Hong Kong, and the planet. In July, a study by the University of California, Santa Barbara provided the first global analysis of all mass-produced plastics. Media reports said plastic threatened a “near permanent contamination of the natural environment”, and called the threat a “crisis comparable to climate change”.
The amount of plastic created since 1950 had increased exponentially, from 2 million tonnes to 8.3 billion tonnes in 2017, and is projected to reach 34 billion tonnes by 2050. We are creating a problem that cannot go away: the study found that, in 2015, of the nearly seven billion tonnes of plastic waste generated, only 9 per cent was recycled, 12 per cent incinerated, and 79 per cent accumulated in landfills or the environment.
The devastating impact of plastics on the marine environment can be seen in the many internet videos showing whales, turtles and sea birds killed by ingesting plastic in the sea. The intrusion of plastics into the food chain on both sea and land is well documented.
Watch: See how it feels to be an ocean animal stuck in a plastic bag
This July, Hong Kong had unusually high rainfall, which resulted in a visible increase in plastics washed into our waters. Several non-governmental organisations and community groups have been cleaning up beaches; much of the rubbish is plastic.
While their efforts are necessary and laudable, they are also futile. They have an insignificant impact on the total problem and create another – what to do with the collected plastic?
What Hong Kong needs to do to recycle more: sort waste properly and see it as a chance to make money, not a problem
Hong Kong’s recent attempts to reduce municipal solid waste and increase recycling make a sorry story. An Audit Commission report in 2015 noted that the government had failed to reach its targets and policy objectives in a range of project areas, including waste separation at source, waste charging and recycling.
The introduction of a charge for plastic shopping bags has started to change attitudes about the unnecessary use of plastic, yet the actual reduction in quantities delivered to landfills could not be adequately quantified.
One issue was the import and export of plastic waste – some of which was being dumped in our landfills and some exported as recycled material.
None of the figures add up, but it appears as if more plastic is being dumped in Hong Kong than we actually generate.
Watch: Hong Kong students learn the basics of recycling and reducing rubbish
The audit report said that, in 2014, the Environmental Protection Department noted the unattractiveness of the plastic-recycling trade, pointing out that it was “highly vulnerable” to changes in supply and demand, and to mainland waste and recycling policies.
That observation was proved right in July when China told the World Trade Organisation that it would stop accepting any imports of plastic waste.
In recent pieces in these pages, Edwin Lau, executive director of The Green Earth, noted a disappointing decline in plastic recycling – from 1.58 million tonnes in 2010 to 93,900 tonnes in 2015 – and warned that a serious waste crisis would hit Hong Kong within a few months, as the main market for Hong Kong recyclers – that is, the mainland – would be closed.
Hong Kong already discards 206 tonnes of PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic and non-PET plastic bottles every day. With recycling rates dropping, this would place even greater demands on the limited space in landfills.
In April, Hong Kong legislators noted with “grave concern” the government’s failure to meet waste targets and called on it to facilitate and increase the recovery of plastic recyclables, and promote the sustainable development of the waste plastic recycling industry.
The administration’s response does not recognise the significance of the issue, and the inadequacy of their measures to meet the waste disposal catastrophe. Hong Kong has a huge challenge on its hands: massive growth in plastic production worldwide; minimal recycling of plastic; the closure of a major market for recycled plastic; and our only option – landfills – are reaching capacity with no alternatives in sight.
Hong Kong has a major crisis fast approaching regarding plastic and other waste. A new approach using advanced technology and high-capacity solutions needs to be adopted quickly. The amount of waste going to landfills must be reduced dramatically.
We need a new approach.
Fundamentally, the use of plastic needs to be banned by law, where reasonable and other alternatives are available. It should be taxed to price it out of consideration for other uses.
The public must reduce plastic use, and organisations and companies must take steps to ensure that this happens. The simple banning of single-use plastic water bottles by some organisations has been effective in Hong Kong, as refillable alternatives for water can easily be provided.
Watch: Can Hong Kong consumers say ‘no’ to plastic?
However, the events of July have shown that these efforts, though necessary, are unlikely to have a significant impact. The market for recycling plastic is collapsing and an alternative must be found which can remove 90 per cent of the plastic used in Hong Kong from the environment.
In this, Hong Kong can be an innovation leader, using its financial, scientific and engineering expertise.
Under the new regulatory agreements the government reached with Hong Kong’s two power suppliers recently, it is now possible for other generators of electricity to be paid for supplying power to the grid. This creates an opportunity for it to be supplied from waste plastic.
The use of gas plasma technology for the treatment of municipal solid waste has relatively long periods of operating success in Japan, China, Europe and the US. While there are mixed reviews of this technology on general waste, similar to that dumped in our landfills, it has proved to be more successful where the fuel source is of a consistent nature.
The use of plastic as a single fuel source, for example, has proved successful. This way, we can dispose of the plastic and generate energy as gas or electricity at the same time.
Gasification is not incineration, but is the use of extreme heat to convert the feedstock into their simplest molecules – carbon monoxide, hydrogen and methane – forming a synthetic gas which can then be used for generating electricity or producing valuable products. This “syngas” can be used in turbines to generate electricity or further processed to produce substitute natural gas, chemicals, fertilisers or transport fuels, such as ethanol.
A wide range of plastics cannot be recycled, or cannot be recycled any further, and end up in a landfill. Such plastics are an excellent, high energy feedstock for gasification.
Gasification can take place in relatively small regional plants, which could be located in our industrial areas or industrial parks. They have proven records of not producing pollutants that could affect surrounding neighbourhoods.
Since July, plastic can no longer be regarded as a waste material that can be recycled in the traditional ways. The economic model of using it as a material for new materials and products no longer works.
Plastic must now be seen as a fuel to generate energy. It should be bought like other fuel sources, creating a market demand. To eliminate the inestimable cost of having plastic polluting the seas, the land, and using up our landfills, the government should buy plastic as feedstock for plasma gasification plants.
The principle of government subsidising a recycling industry already exists. The difference is that the government needs to quickly approve several gasification plants and create a market for plastics as fuel, a consistent market which gives our collectors and recyclers certainty as to where they can sell their product.
Demand for energy from new sources which don’t produce large amounts of carbon dioxide needs to be fully utilised. Plastics can provide that fuel while addressing a major pollution catastrophe.
Ian Brownlee is managing director of Masterplan Limited, a planning and development consultancy which has prepared submissions for NGOs on alternative waste management options for Hong Kong