Connecting the dots between plastic waste and renewable energy

With the recent United Nations Conference on Climate Change, there’s a lot of talk about harnessing renewable energy.  Take a company like Unilever who’s committed to becoming ‘carbon positive’ by 2030.  Meaning, 100% of Unilever’s energy across its operations will come from renewable sources, in just 15 years!  Interesting, now let’s quickly switch gears and take a look at plastic waste and the sustainability efforts taking place there.  With the advent of Extended Producer Responsibility, brands and manufacturers will be held accountable for the post-consumer stage of its product.  What is the common disposal method for the majority of Unilever’s packaging and products?  Well, if we’re being honest and using the facts and data available, it’s all ending-up in a landfill.  Recycling comes in a distant second and composting and incineration are practically nonexistent.   However, considering this new agenda Unilever proposes, is this really a negative thing?  Not if someone can connect the dots.

Today, the bad thing about landfills is in name only.   Perhaps we need to start referring to this single most common disposal method simply as Bioreactors.  The vast majority of all MSW ends-up in “landfills” that capture and control the gases being produced in these environments and turning it into energy.  This valuable resource, Landfill Gas-to-Energy, is considered the most economical form of green energy available today, even when considering the costs of hydro, solar and wind.  Once converted, landfill gas can be utilized in many ways: to generate electricity, heat, or steam; as an alternative vehicle fuel; or sold on the energy market as a renewable “green” power or gas. All States in the U.S. (including California) utilize gas to energy as part of their green initiatives and companies like Mars, Dart, Toyota, Frito Lay, SC Johnson, Tyson Foods, Kimberly-Clark, Coca-Cola, Anheuser Busch, just to name a few, are already harnessing this energy resource.

If Unilever’s plastic products and packaging where designed for this specific environment, it could essentially power itself with the trash it produces.  Today, we have the ability to make plastic waste naturally biodegrade in these amazing anaerobic environments, Bioreactors.   The Recycling industry and the Compostable Plastics industry will continue to rail against this, but it’s time more companies rely on facts and scientific data instead of myths and emotions that simply coddle consumer’s inaccurate perceptions.  Today, and in the foreseeable future, Landfills/Bioreactors will absolutely play a major role in the way we manage waste and harness renewable energy.  The demonization of this fact is counterproductive to the goals being set.  The power is in the hands of companies like Unilever to see beyond the status quo and implement solutions that provide accountability and viability for itself and its customers.  Connecting the dots is the key to a sustainable future.