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Do Fuels Made From Plastic Make Eco Sense?

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Chemical recycling involves sorting plastic by type, grinding into powders, and mixing and melting into the same kind of polymers from which the powders were generated. sturti / Getty Images

By Brigitte Osterath

Yogurt pots, shampoo bottles, coffee-to-go lids, bubble wrap — plastic products are all composed of the same building blocks: long carbon chains.

Heating them to high temperatures makes the carbon chains crack into a mixture of shorter molecules, ultimately converting them back into crude oil, the resource from which the majority of plastic products were originally made.



Varying the process can result in different carbon chain lengths and therefore different carbon-based products, ranging from fuels such as diesel and kerosene to petroleum naphtha, a valuable liquid for the chemical industry.

This potential mode of recycling — where plastic is broken down into its original components — has been becoming increasingly popular in industry.

It's known as 'chemical recycling,' as opposed to 'mechanical recycling' — the chop-and-wash-method in which plastic is sorted by type, ground into powders, mixed and melted into the very same kind of polymers from which the powders were generated.

"Chemical recycling has emerged as a major topic [in industry], mainly out of helplessness of how to proceed in mechanical recycling," says Thomas Fischer, head of the recycling management division with the non-profit environmental association Deutsche Umwelthilfe.

A prerequisite for mechanical recycling, he says, is making plastic that is actually recyclable. "That requires a lot of know-how, such as which dyestuffs and additives can be used and which cannot."

You also have to design the product itself in a certain way. When a product has been manufactured by layering several different polymers on top of each other, for example, recycling becomes tricky.

Chemical recycling is much simpler — it's just a case of heating everything with no need for prior sorting. That's the idea at least.

Big Business

Several companies have made significant investments in chemical recycling, building facilities to test various ways of making what is allegedly more environmentally friendly oil. So far, it's still in the development and test stage.

In 2018, multinational chemistry giant BASF launched ChemCycling — a project that aims to generate a so-called pyrolysis oil from plastic waste. The company claims it can be used in the production of new polymers, which it says will save fossil fuel resources.

Austrian oil and gas company OMV has built a pilot plant which it says can process all common packaging material such as polyethylene, polypropylene and polystyrene.

The plastics are chopped down, mixed with a high-boiling solvent and heated in a furnace at over 300 degrees Celcius (572 degrees Fahrenheit). Once the product has been distilled and the solvent filtered off, the company is left with synthetic crude oil, which it claims is "free of sulfur, lighter than fossil crude oil and with a higher hydrogen content — therefore of higher quality."

The product can be refined to make fuels such as gasoline, kerosene and diesel or petrochemical products.

The plant has the capacity to convert 100 kilos of waste each hour, OMV told DW. But a planned successor facility would be able to process 2,000 kilos hourly.

Similar pilot plants are being constructed in other countries across Europe.

Behind the Hype

So, can chemical recycling solve our waste problem through the creation of fuels?

Roman Maletz, a researcher at the Institute of Waste Management and Circular Economy at the Technical University in Dresden, is not convinced.

The idea of recycling plastic trash by cracking it, he says, is neither new nor revolutionary. It has just never worked before.

"In the past, such plants always ran into problems when in continuous operation," Maletz said. "I don't see how these issues could suddenly be resolved."

Problems arise when the trash contains too many different materials or when it is too dirty.

"In that case, the quality of the product is lowered, and the whole process becomes economically unviable."

Moreover, it is not necessarily environmentally friendly, adds Henning Wilts, Director of the Circular Economy Division at Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy.

"If you break waste apart at a molecular level, you need a lot of energy, so the CO2 savings are quite low," he tells DW. "If the energy needed comes from burning coal, then the whole thing is an environmental disaster."

Although it is expensive, he says mechanical recycling still remains the recycling of choice.

"If countries use the existence of chemical recycling as an excuse to stop any efforts in mechanical recycling, that will become a problem."

He says the fact that petroleum naphtha generated from chemical recycling could be used to produce new food-grade plastics which is "one of the big drivers to develop the technology."

Producing fuels like diesel or kerosene from plastic trash, however, Fischer says, makes less sense.

"If fuels are produced which are burned afterwards, then even more CO2 is blown into the air," Fischer explains. "That's not the idea of a cycle."

Reposted with permission from Deutsche Welle.

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By Tara Lohan

Warming temperatures on land and in the water are already forcing many species to seek out more hospitable environments. Atlantic mackerel are swimming farther north; mountain-dwelling pikas are moving upslope; some migratory birds are altering the timing of their flights.

Numerous studies have tracked these shifting ranges, looked at the importance of wildlife corridors to protect these migrations, and identified climate refugia where some species may find a safer climatic haven.

"There's a huge amount of scientific literature about where species will have to move as the climate warms," says U.C. Berkeley biogeographer Matthew Kling. "But there hasn't been much work in terms of actually thinking about how they're going to get there — at least not when it comes to wind-dispersed plants."

Kling and David Ackerly, professor and dean of the College of Natural Resources at U.C. Berkeley, have taken a stab at filling this knowledge gap. Their recent study, published in Nature Climate Change, looks at the vulnerability of wind-dispersed species to climate change.

It's an important field of research, because while a fish can more easily swim toward colder waters, a tree may find its wind-blown seeds landing in places and conditions where they're not adapted to grow.

Kling is careful to point out that the researchers weren't asking how climate change was going to change wind; other research suggests there likely won't be big shifts in global wind patterns.

Instead the study involved exploring those wind patterns — including direction, speed and variability — across the globe. The wind data was then integrated with data on climate variation to build models trying to predict vulnerability patterns showing where wind may either help or hinder biodiversity from responding to climate change.

One of the study's findings was that wind-dispersed or wind-pollinated trees in the tropics and on the windward sides of mountain ranges are more likely to be vulnerable, since the wind isn't likely to move those dispersers in the right direction for a climate-friendly environment.

The researchers also looked specifically at lodgepole pines, a species that's both wind-dispersed and wind-pollinated.

They found that populations of lodgepole pines that already grow along the warmer and drier edges of the species' current range could very well be under threat due to rising temperatures and related climate alterations.

"As temperature increases, we need to think about how the genes that are evolved to tolerate drought and heat are going to get to the portions of the species' range that are going to be getting drier and hotter," says Kling. "So that's what we were able to take a stab at predicting and estimating with these wind models — which populations are mostly likely to receive those beneficial genes in the future."

That's important, he says, because wind-dispersed species like pines, willows and poplars are often keystone species whole ecosystems depend upon — especially in temperate and boreal forests.

And there are even more plants that rely on pollen dispersal by wind.

"That's going to be important for moving genes from the warmer parts of a species' range to the cooler parts of the species' range," he says. "This is not just about species' ranges shifting, but also genetic changes within species."

Kling says this line of research is just beginning, and much more needs to be done to test these models in the field. But there could be important conservation-related benefits to that work.

"All these species and genes need to migrate long distances and we can be thinking more about habitat connectivity and the vulnerability of these systems," he says.

The more we learn, the more we may be able to do to help species adapt.

"The idea is that there will be some landscapes where the wind is likely to help these systems naturally adapt to climate change without much intervention, and other places where land managers might really need to intervene," he says. "That could involve using assisted migration or assisted gene flow to actually get in there, moving seeds or planting trees to help them keep up with rapid climate change."


Tara Lohan is deputy editor of The Revelator and has worked for more than a decade as a digital editor and environmental journalist focused on the intersections of energy, water and climate. Her work has been published by The Nation, American Prospect, High Country News, Grist, Pacific Standard and others. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis. http://twitter.com/TaraLohan

Reposted with permission from The Revelator.

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An illustration depicts the extinct woolly rhino. Heinrich Harder / Wikimedia Commons

The last Ice Age eliminated some giant mammals, like the woolly rhino. Conventional thinking initially attributed their extinction to hunting. While overhunting may have contributed, a new study pinpointed a different reason for the woolly rhinos' extinction: climate change.

The last of the woolly rhinos went extinct in Siberia nearly 14,000 years ago, just when the Earth's climate began changing from its frozen conditions to something warmer, wetter and less favorable to the large land mammal. DNA tests conducted by scientists on 14 well-preserved rhinos point to rapid warming as the culprit, CNN reported.

"Humans are well known to alter their environment and so the assumption is that if it was a large animal it would have been useful to people as food and that must have caused its demise," says Edana Lord, a graduate student at the Center for Paleogenetics in Stockholm, Sweden, and co-first author of the paper, Smithsonian Magazine reported. "But our findings highlight the role of rapid climate change in the woolly rhino's extinction."

The study, published in Current Biology, notes that the rhino population stayed fairly consistent for tens of thousands of years until 18,500 years ago. That means that people and rhinos lived together in Northern Siberia for roughly 13,000 years before rhinos went extinct, Science News reported.

The findings are an ominous harbinger for large species during the current climate crisis. As EcoWatch reported, nearly 1,000 species are expected to go extinct within the next 100 years due to their inability to adapt to a rapidly changing climate. Tigers, eagles and rhinos are especially vulnerable.

The difference between now and the phenomenon 14,000 years ago is that human activity is directly responsible for the current climate crisis.

To figure out the cause of the woolly rhinos' extinction, scientists examined DNA from different rhinos across Siberia. The tissue, bone and hair samples allowed them to deduce the population size and diversity for tens of thousands of years prior to extinction, CNN reported.

Researchers spent years exploring the Siberian permafrost to find enough samples. Then they had to look for pristine genetic material, Smithsonian Magazine reported.

It turns out the wooly rhinos actually thrived as they lived alongside humans.

"It was initially thought that humans appeared in northeastern Siberia fourteen or fifteen thousand years ago, around when the woolly rhinoceros went extinct. But recently, there have been several discoveries of much older human occupation sites, the most famous of which is around thirty thousand years old," senior author Love Dalén, a professor of evolutionary genetics at the Center for Paleogenetics, said in a press release.

"This paper shows that woolly rhino coexisted with people for millennia without any significant impact on their population," Grant Zazula, a paleontologist for Canada's Yukon territory and Simon Fraser University who was not involved in the research, told Smithsonian Magazine. "Then all of a sudden the climate changed and they went extinct."