Economic Impact of Plastics-to-Oil Facilities in the U.S.

Introduction Plastics recycling has continued to grow in the United States over the past few decades, with a total of 2.8 million tons of plastics recycled in 2012. 1 While reuse and recycling are the preferred methods of plastics recovery, it is not always economically feasible – or even possible – for all plastics to be recycled, illustrating the opportunity for other economical means of recovering plastics. Because they are derived from hydrocarbons, plastics have a high energy content that can be converted to crude oil and fuels, synthetic gas, and recycled feedstocks for new plastics and other products of chemistry. Various conversion technologies such as mass burn waste-to-energy, gasification and pyrolysis, are able to recover the energy contained in plastics. Recovering this valuable energy through conversion technologies reduces waste sent to landfills and complements plastics recycling. 2 Investment in the technologies — and associated facilities — needed to capture this energy value will contribute to sustainable development, create jobs, and has the potential to contribute billions of dollars to the economy. This report presents the results of the analysis conducted to quantify the potential economic impact that investments in conversion technology facilities could have on the United States. For the purposes of this report, the analysis focused only on the conversion technology of pyrolysis, referred to here as ―plastics-to-oil‖ or ―PTO‖ technology. 

Pyrolysis is a process by which non-recycled plastics (NRP) are source-separated and converted to synthetic crude oil or other types of fuel oil by means of thermal treatment. Although there are several manufacturers of PTO technologies, each with some variation in its technology, the basic steps of the process are the same: first the NRP, which can be mixed plastics, is collected and pretreated; then heat converts the plastics to a gaseous state and any non-plastic materials (char) are removed; finally, the gas is distilled into a liquid (oil/fuel) and either sold as is or further refined into fuels or other petroleum products before entering the market. This report is based on metrics developed by the American Chemistry Council (ACC) for two variations of hypothetical PTO facilities using data collected from publically-available sources and information provided by members of the American Chemistry Council’s Plastics-to-Oil Technologies Alliance.3 Using the conservative assumption that 20% of the amount of post-consumer NRP4 landfilled each year could be diverted to PTO facilities, 5 we estimate that the U.S. could support between 350 and 600 PTO facilities, depending on the production characteristics and size of the facility.

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