While plastics recycling rates in the U.S. are continuing to increase, not all types of plastic packaging can be recycled. For example, some high-performance plastic packaging applications manufactured with a combination of resins are generally not compatible with current mainstream recycling technology. However, innovative manufacturers are deriving fuel from plastic waste and developing new feedstock materials for manufacturing using an emerging set of technologies. We call the processes by which solid waste is converted into energy or feedstocks “energy recovery.” Through a combination of recycling and energy conversion, the United States recovered 27% of used plastics in 2013. Energy recovery is expected to grow, as plastic makers have set and are working to achieve aggressive goals for the reuse, recycling and recovery of 100% of plastic packaging by 2040, with interim goals by 2030.
Fuel from plastic waste today powers homes and businesses. The hydrocarbons that make up most plastic packaging are a source of energy. For example, common plastic foodservice products supply more than 16,000 BTUs (similar to the big burner on a stove) per pound in a “waste-to-energy” facility. That’s approximately twice as much energy per pound as coal. Rather than burying this stored energy in landfills, communities can recapture it.
In 2015, leading companies throughout the flexible packaging value chain launched an effort to advance the understanding of how non-recycled types of flexible packaging (e.g., multi-layered pouches) can be effectively sorted for recovery. The collaboration, Materials Recovery for the Future, released results of its preliminary findings in 2016. Learn more.
The United States currently processes 13 percent of its solid waste, recovering enough energy to power homes in five states or the equivalent of 28.6 billion barrels of crude oil.
The Power of Waste
A recent study from the Earth Engineering Center at Columbia University assessed the energy value of municipal solid waste that is currently sent to U.S. landfills. It demonstrates the tremendous potential of modern technologies that convert waste into energy to help boost energy security, reduce landfill waste and lower greenhouse gas emissions.
13.8 M homes powered
13.8 Million Homes
If current capacity were to be expanded so that all of the non-recycled municipal solid waste that is currently sent to U.S. landfills each year could instead be converted to energy, we could generate enough electricity to supply 13.8 million homes with power.
9M cars fueled
5.7B Gallons of Gas
If current capacity were to be expanded so that the U.S. could convert all its non-recycled plastics into oil each year, we could produce 5.7 billion gallons of gas annually. That's enough to fuel nearly 9 million cars each year.
6K acres saved
Energy = 6K Acres
If capacity were to be expanded so that we could convert our non-recycled waste to alternative energy instead of landfilling it, we would have the opportunity to preserve more than 6,000 acres of open space every year that would otherwise be used to store garbage
23M cars off our roads
Energy Reduces 123M Tons CO2 = 23M Less Cars
If capacity were to be expanded so that we could convert all of our non-recycled waste into energy instead of landfilling it, we could reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by nearly 123 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalents. This is comparable to removing 23 million cars from our roads.