Plas­tic could be mined from land­fills to fuel cars and homes

The Daily Telegraph - - News - By Sarah Knap­ton SCIENCE ED­I­TOR

PLAS­TIC could be mined from land­fill sites and trans­formed into fuel for homes and cars, sci­en­tists be­lieve.

The UK is home to 20,000 land­fills, con­tain­ing within them 400 mil­lion tons of plas­tic col­lec­tively, and re­searchers at Cran­field Uni­ver­sity in Bed­ford­shire have found there are at least 850 dumps with enough plas­tic to make min­ing eco­nom­i­cally vi­able.

It fol­lows warn­ings ear­lier this week that there is now so much plas­tic waste in the oceans and in the sur­face of the Earth that it will cre­ate a new ge­o­log­i­cal layer which sci­en­tists will be able to de­tect in 10 mil­lion years.

Dr Stu­art Wagland, a Se­nior Lec­turer in En­ergy and En­vi­ron­men­tal Chem­istry, be­lieves that much of the waste could be re­moved and reused, and is lead­ing a Govern­ment-backed project to re­cover land­fill plas­tic and turn it into a new fuel.

“En­hanced Land­fill Min­ing is the con­cept that we can re­cover max­i­mum value from land­fills, so we can reclaim the ma­jor­ity of re­sources,” he told the BBCS Inside Out.

“We can reclaim the land for de­vel­op­ment, and we can re­cover ma­te­ri­als of in­ter­est, such as rare earth el­e­ments, crit­i­cal rare ma­te­ri­als, valu­able met­als, but also plas­tic. All of this plas­tic ma­te­rial is a po­ten­tial re­source, so we’re look­ing at these plas­tics in par­tic­u­lar to un­der­stand how they’ve be­haved in land­fill sites. We’re look­ing at the con­struc­tion of them – have they changed or are they the same as the plas­tic that went in – and then look­ing at the tech­nol­ogy that we can ap­ply to re­cover the best pos­si­ble value for these.”

Some waste plas­tic is al­ready be­ing made into oil through a process called py­rol­y­sis, but Dr Wagland be­lieves it could also pro­duce chem­i­cals and liq­uid fuels to po­ten­tially power the cars of the fu­ture within 10 years.

He be­lieves there could be up to 4,000 more sites across the UK that might be worth dig­ging up and that about 25 per cent of Europe’s land­fills could be prof­itably mined.

In­vestors are also start­ing to take an in­ter­est in the prospect of turn­ing waste into profit. Machiels, a waste man­age­ment com­pany in Bel­gium, is in the fi­nal stages of gain­ing ap­proval to ex­ca­vate mil­lions of tons of decades­old waste buried in one of Europe’s big­gest rub­bish dumps.

The com­pany plans to use a tech­nol­ogy called plasma, which heats waste to high tem­per­a­tures and turns it into a re­new­able gas and the residue made into ‘plas­marok’, which can be used as a build­ing ma­te­rial.

Paul Davies, an en­vi­ron­men­tal lawyer from Latham and Watkins, a City law firm, said: “The idea that you can re­cy­cle ex­ist­ing ma­te­ri­als has to be a good thing. That we have land­fills up and down the coun­try con­tain­ing all of these ma­te­ri­als and we leave them there, I just find be­wil­der­ing.”

How­ever, op­po­nents ar­gue that min­ing land­fill sites would in­crease our de­pen­dence on plas­tic waste.

Ju­lian Kirby, the plas­tics pol­lu­tion cam­paigner for Friends of the Earth, said: “There’ll be a lot in that land­fill that would be good to get out and put to good use. Met­als, pre­cious met­als that are in com­put­ers, lap­tops and watches and all the rest of it. But get­ting plas­tic out, turn­ing it back into oil and then burn­ing it – es­sen­tially that’s what’s hap­pen­ing – that’s go­ing to be very bad for cli­mate change. Burn­ing plas­tic is in­cred­i­bly pol­lut­ing.”

The BBC One re­port can be seen at 19:30 on Mon­day.

‘We have land­fills up and down the coun­try con­tain­ing all of these ma­te­ri­als’

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