Plastic Ocean or Power from Plastic?
It was night as we sailed out of San Diego harbour onboard the ‘Searcher’ passing by a large number of Californian sea lions sleeping on a row of naval pontoons. One had a loop of plastic parcel banding round its neck cutting into its flesh – the unfortunate animal was growing and the plastic was slowly strangling it. The web has many distressing pictures of sea birds, mammals and fishes suffering a similar slow and painful death.
We hear a lot about the impact of climate change on our oceans, but the other growing problem is the vast amount of plastic garbage dumped into our rivers and our seas. The numbers are mind boggling; it is estimated that the floating plastic would cover an area twice the size of France and that every day another 8 million tonnes of plastic waste enters the world’s oceans. At this rate plastic will outweigh fish by 2050. We are carelessly disposing of almost indestructible items – a plastic drink bottle has an estimated life of up to 600 years!
And it’s not all big stuff; micro and nano plastics are also causing major concern. As reported in The Guardian, scientists at Ghent University in Belgium recently calculated that shellfish lovers are eating up to 11,000 plastic fragments in their seafood each year and furthermore, the results of a study by Plymouth University stated that plastic was found in a third of UK-caught fish, including cod, haddock, mackerel and shellfish. World fisheries, a $279 billion industry is at risk!
On our whale-watching boat trip around Baja California we were fortunate to have the company of two experts; Jo Ruxton who was part of the brilliant ‘Blue Planet’ team and is the producer of the acclaimed ‘A Plastic Ocean’ film – please watch the trailer – Jo was accompanied by Bonnie Monteleone, an award-winning communication expert in this field.
So what can be done about the problem? Firstly, recycle everything that is recyclable and incentivise people by putting a deposit on all plastic containers. Secondly, stop buying plastics that are not recyclable – the human race has survived for many millennia without plastic-wrapped vegetables so why do we need them now? Thirdly, we need a major international programme to clean up our oceans.
So what’s all this got to do with energy?
Plastics are made from oil and gas and have high calorific value, so given effective pollution control we can generate as much or more power from burning plastics as from burning the same weight of coal. One study found that if all non-recycled plastics in the U.S. were converted to energy via plastics-to-oil technologies, they could produce nearly 6 billion gallons of gasoline, enough to fuel nearly 9 million cars per year.
Plastic Energy, is a UK company active in this field has plants in Seville and Almeria, Spain – the latter operational since 2014 – that can produce up to 19,000 litres of hydrocarbon fuel from 20 tonnes of plastic feedstock as well as converting plastic-to-plastic. It states that if the UK, for example, was to divert the 1.2 million tonnes of plastic waste it currently sends to landfill it could produce 840 million litres of diesel.