February 26, 2024

U.S. Looks to Plastic-to-Fuel as a Viable Waste Solution

Plastic waste has become one of the most pressing environmental issues facing the United States. From overflowing landfills to polluting our oceans, Americans generate over 35 million tons of plastic waste each year, with only about 8.4% recycled. As recycling rates remain low and export bans make shipping plastic overseas untenable, communities across the country have been searching for new plastic waste management strategies. One potential solution gaining momentum is plastic-to-fuel technology.

How Plastic-to-Fuel Works

Plastic-to-fuel, also known as waste-to-fuel, is a process that converts non-recyclable plastics into a liquid fuel product like diesel, gasoline, or jet fuel. The process uses thermal cracking, a type of pyrolysis, to break the long hydrocarbon polymer chains in plastics down into shorter hydrocarbon chains similar to crude oil.

The plastic waste is first processed to remove contaminants like food, paper, and metals. It is then fed into a reactor vessel where it is rapidly heated to temperatures between 700-950°F in the absence of oxygen. At these high temperatures, the plastic molecules break apart and reform into an oil-like synthetic crude. This mixture is then further refined through distillation to produce the desired fuel product along with other byproducts like waxes that can be used for other purposes.

Moving from Pilots to Large-Scale Production

While plastic-to-fuel technology has been researched for decades, it is only recently achieving commercial scale applications in the waste management sector. Several companies have now operated successful pilot projects converting tens or hundreds of tons of plastic waste per day.

For example, California-based Global Renewables operates a 50-ton per day pilot plant in Fresno that has converted over 7,000 tons of plastic into approximately 500,000 gallons of diesel and gasoline blendstocks since 2018. Meanwhile, Ventana EcoSystems ramped up production at their facility in Rochester, New York from 3 to 30 tons per day in 2020 with plans for future expansion.

As these pilots prove commercial and technical viability at meaningful scales, large corporations and municipalities are now investing in first-of-their-kind industrial plastic-to-fuel facilities. Chemical company Agilyx recently broke ground on a 20,000 ton per year plant in Oregon that will sell its synthetic crude to refineries. Additionally, the cities of Philadelphia and Minneapolis have announced plans to build 500 and 250 ton per day plants respectively to fuel city fleets and reduce waste costs.

If successful, these initial large-scale plants could pave the way for widespread plastic-to-fuel adoption across the U.S. within the next decade. They will provide critical data on continuous operations, economics, and fuel quality that will encourage further private sector investment and technology optimization.

Benefits for the Waste and Fuel Industries

Plastic-to-fuel offers synergistic benefits to two major sectors – waste management and transportation fuels. On the waste side, it provides a higher value use for plastic than traditional disposal methods like landfilling and incineration. By converting plastic into a product as useful as fuel, plastic-to-fuel could help increase recycling rates and keep plastic out of the environment.

For the oil and gas industry, plastic-to-fuel technology represents a supplemental source of hydrocarbon feedstock that do not rely on finite crude oil reserves. The synthetic crude produced can be directly substituted for petroleum and easily integrated into existing fuel supply and distribution networks. This diversifies input streams and hedges against volatility in global oil prices.

Initial analyses also suggest plastic-to-fuel can be cost competitive at economies of scale. A recent Rystad Energy report estimated the operating costs for large-scale plastic pyrolysis plants in the $400-500 per metric ton range. With fuel selling for $500-700 per metric ton, the process shows promise to be financially self-sustaining without subsidies. As technology improves, costs are likely to decline further.

Regulatory and Infrastructure Hurdles Remain

While momentum is growing for plastic-to-fuel, challenges around regulation, infrastructure, and public acceptance still exist. One key hurdle is securing environmental permits for new industrial facilities processing waste. Regulators will need to validate plastic-to-fuel systems do not negatively impact air, water or soil through emissions.

Fuel producers will also require offtake agreements from oil refineries committing to purchase the synthetic crude output. Refineries may need to invest in modifications to optimally process plastic-derived oils. Then there are questions around how and if synthetic crude fuels will qualify for existing EPA fuel blending mandates like the Renewable Fuel Standard.

Public skepticism of waste-to-energy technologies is another social factor the industry must address through education. Perceptions of odor, pollution risks, and concerns synthetic fuels could displace demand for renewables all require mitigation. Overall regulatory clarity and coordination across local, state and federal levels will be important to provide long term market certainty for plastic-to-fuel investments.

As the plastic waste crisis grows more dire, innovative solutions like plastic-to-fuel show promise to revolutionize how we manage post-consumer plastic while also bolstering domestic fuel production. With several large demonstration projects now underway, the next few years will be critical to prove financial and operational viability at industrial scales. If successful, plastic-to-fuel could emerge as the new standard for post-recycling plastic while yielding valuable low-carbon transportation fuels. Continued progress will depend on addressing regulatory complexities and gaining stakeholder acceptance through open communication. With further pilot scale learnings, plastic-to-fuel stands to significantly reduce plastic pollution impacts if deployed widely across the United States.

1. Source: Coherent Market Insights, Public sources, Desk research
2. We have leveraged AI tools to mine information and compile it