Jeff Wooster, Dow's global sustainability leader for plastics, is very aware of the impression some have about plastic packaging.
"We understand that some consumers view packaging as waste," he told PlasticsToday. "We want to help consumers feel good about plastic packaging and have them know when they're done with it, the packaging will be reused."
Dow Chemical believes in order to achieve 100% recycling of packaging, the industry must progress from the 3R mindset, which is the widely practiced "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle," to the more comprehensive efforts being used in regions such as Europe that add the fourth "R" for end-of-life materials—"Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Recover." Dow says using an integrated 4R approach will help assure greater total value recovery from end-of-life plastics and other used materials.
Energy recovery takes end-of-life plastics through a conversion process and uses the resulting energy value as a fuel. The combustion method of energy recovery is also known as thermal recycling, and is referred to as "recycle-to-energy" (RTE) within Dow. Many believe that energy recovery can create a valuable alternative energy source but at the same time reduce dependence on natural gas, oil and coal.
While the first option for the recovery of many plastics is mechanical recycling, Wooster said in order to increase the overall recovery of plastics there must be an integration of recycling with chemical transformation and energy recovery.
Wooster said some throw up red flags when it comes to energy recovery because they believe it will divert material from being recycled.
"The key is understanding how energy recovery works as a system because mechanical recycling and energy recovery can work together," he said. "We have the potential to recycle and recovery energy from a large amount of material."
Mechanical recycling is primarily intended for larger volume treatment of mono-materials, such as PET and HDPE bottles, but Dow says there are limitations in terms of technology, logistics, costs and infrastructure. Energy recovery programs can capture value from consumer goods packaging along with non-recycled stretch and shrink film. Specifically, polyethylene, polypropylene, and polystyrene are said to have high material energy values.
"While it makes economic sense to recycle materials, there are a lot of packages that can't be easily recycled," Wooster said. "The best thing to do in that case is recover the energy."
Dow has experience with energy recovery. In 2010, Dow conducted an energy recovery trial in North America that the company says successfully demonstrated that used plastic can generate energy. The pilot test, conducted at a rotary kiln in Dow's Michigan operations, found that 96% of available energy was recovered after 578 lb of used linear low density polyethylene was thermally recycled. The energy recovered was equivalent to 11.1 million BTUs of natural gas and was used as fuel for Dow's incinerator during the test.
In 2011, six additional energy recovery trials were conducted using non-recycled plastics (NRPs) from Dow Michigan operations to displace natural gas. These trials used 100 tons of NRPs and saved 2 billion BTUs of energy.
In addition, the American Chemistry Council and the Flexible Packaging