Plastic could be mined from landfills to fuel cars and homes
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’