The word “downcycling” caught my eye. I saw it in a recent article from WHYY, the NPR station in the Philadelphia region. The article was mainly about a company called Continuus Materials, based in Northeast Philadelphia, that has partnered with Waste Management. Continuus Materials is basically mining for material such as plastic and cardboard.
The WHYY article reports, “‘We want the plastic and the fiber — the paper, cardboard,’ said Continuus Materials Senior Vice President Rich Toberman. ‘Eventually, that becomes our product.’ Since 2014, that product has been something called SpecFUEL, fuel pellets made from a mixture of thin, flexible plastic — from products like plastic bags, shrink wrap, and snack bags — and paper products. Cement manufacturers use the pellets to power their plants as a supplement to coal. The pellets have a slightly better emissions profile than coal and are also slightly cheaper, though some environmental groups have criticized the practice as effectively being incineration.”
Continuus makes “SpecFUEL” out of plastic and paper waste. The waste is processed and reduced and made into little pellets that are used as a supplement with coal and burned for energy. The company then started to try to think of other applications for the pellets other than burning it. So, it started making wallboard out of plastic and paper waste. Considering about 20-billion square feet of wallboard is used every year in North America, Continuus estimates that its waste-to-wallboard model is capable of diverting about 110-billion pounds of waste from going to the landfill each year.
That in itself is something to blog about, but it’s not my main point. At one point, WHYY quotes Maurice Sampson, the eastern Pennsylvania director at Clean Water Action. Sampson believes while this is a great lesson on the repurposing of materials it still doesn’t solve the problem of plastic in the environment.
“‘Just because we’re recovering it doesn’t mean we’re improving the overall picture,’ he said.
Sampson noted that plastics production has only increased since ways have been developed to recycle the material, and that none of the recycling or recovery is done by the plastics industry — it’s all by third-party vendors that mine plastics much in the way they would mine for iron or minerals. And the products are not recycled into their original form, but rather “downcycled” into different products.
‘That’s a good thing, but it’s not going to reduce the amount of plastic in the world,’ Sampson said, adding that reducing or eliminating single-use plastics is the goal. ‘It’s not a solution to our waste problem.’”
The media is fairly good at pointing out some of these downcycling “success” stories. But not many of them point out, as WHYY has, the problems that still need to be solved.