Sustainable Packaging: Are we wasting valuable energy vilifying landfills?

Biogas is a renewable energy source that exerts a very small carbon footprint and has proven to be an extremely viable resource. The cause is indisputable and the effect holds the key to significantly advancing sustainability in plastic packaging. The cause is a process in which living organisms, microbes, breakdown organic matter in the absence of oxygen (anaerobically). The effect is an immensely valuable alternative energy resource. Although the term for what causes this process cannot be labeled on any plastic packaging or product in the State of California, our ability to design plastic applications to biodegrade in anaerobic environments is the catalyst for advancing our efforts in how we handle plastic waste. To achieve circularity, recouping end-of-life value is imperative and our energy needs are paramount. Today, our most inexpensive disposal method returns one of our greatest needs and it’s already the single most common waste stream for plastics. With our ever growing energy requirements, is it wise to continue to overlook this valuable resource?

Speaking of California, did you know that Orange County just added another landfill gas-to-energy (LFGTE) project, making it the third LFGTE facility in this immediate region? At a tune of $60 million, this highly efficient and strictly regulated facility is not only estimated to reduce CO2 emissions by approximately 53,000 tons annually, but it will also generate roughly 160,000 megawatt-hours (MWh) of electricity. Collectively, the three LFGTE operations in this one region alone produce approximately 380,000 MWh of electricity annually, enough to power some 56,000 Southern California homes.

Apple, Coca-Cola, Anheuser-Busch, BMW, General Motors, Kimberly-Clark, Mars, UPS, Pepsi and many others have harnessed this valuable resource as an important part of their competitive strategy. The US EPA and the Departments of Agriculture and Energy recognized directed biogas as an emerging technology in a December 2015 report, touting that it “offers the nation a cost-effective and profitable solution to reducing emissions, diverting waste streams, and producing renewable energy.”

Today in the United States over 85% of all municipal solid waste is disposed of into landfills that are already converting landfill gas to green energy! This energy is used to power homes, manufacturing, businesses, schools, and government facilities. These are also the same landfills that are being used to dispose of the vast majority (over 90%) of all plastics used. Think about this; what if all of the plastics being disposed of into landfills were waste-to-energy compliant and would be converted into green/clean energy? We would instantly solve the vast majority of our plastic waste problem and help solve some of our energy shortage problem, all without the need to subsidize billions of dollars.

It is irrefutable that we have the ability/technology to accelerate the biodegradation process of plastics. The question now becomes, where should this process take place? In the New Plastics Economy, the objective is to harness innovations that can scale across the system, to re-define what’s possible and create conditions for a new economy. It’s about deriving greater “end-of-life” value through the infrastructures we already have in place. Today, one of our highest priorities is alternative energy. With the vast majority of plastic waste entering anaerobic environments that control and convert biogas into clean energy, we should probably stop ignoring the elephant in the room.

For more information, please contact ENSO Plastics.