The challenge

Plastic is perhaps the most versatile product ever created by man. It’s the world’s fastest growing man-made material, and we have become completely reliant on it. Why?

Because we use plastic in clothes, building and construction, paint, aircrafts, PCs, TVs and cell phones, packaging and a number of other products. There are currently no satisfactory replacements, because plastic has a number of unique properties; it’s inexpensive, durable, easy to produce in bulk and easy to shape – properties that wood, metal and glass are unable to match. We depend on plastic and its amazing properties.

The greatest challenge is that the properties that make plastic great to use, also make it a huge threat to the environment. Plastic doesn’t decompose, and is rarely recycled or reused. Plastic waste exists in many varieties (there are approximately 50 different plastic molecules), and the plastic types are often mixed after use. We are therefore only able to recycle around 10% worldwide (illustration of how long it takes for plastic to decompose).

The first problem is that used plastic is virtually worthless. We collect steel and other metals because they can easily be melted down and reused. Mixed plastic waste, on the other hand, has no reasonable recycling value today.

The second problem is that plastic doesn’t decompose. While food waste decomposes and disappears, plastic waste adds up. The third problem is that plastic is almost impossible to recover once it enters the natural cycle. So, is there no solution?

The challenge

Even so, the growth in plastics use and pollution is growing, not least because of the rapid growth in emerging markets, which have transitioned to an economy with a high level of consumption but which often have poor systems for waste management.

Over the past years, the world has woken up to the enormous and growing problem this is creating for our oceans. Annually, an estimated 5 to 13 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean.

The consequences of this are hard to analyze precisely, but the scale is almost beyond belief. A report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation famously has predicted that by 2050 the world’s oceans will contain more plastic than fish, measured by weight.

The plastic waste causes immediate problems for fish, mammals and birds. For instance, they starve to death with stomachs filled with plastic waste.

Even so, the long-term effects are even more ominous. Plastic waste in the oceans is gradually broken down to tiny fragments, microplastic, which is absorbed in the food chain.

Currently, plastic waste is a huge and growing environmental problem, as well as a wasted resource. Other examples of challenges that Quantafuel’s technology can be applied to are stranded gas, flared gas and biomass.

Plastic waste, the first priority of Quantafuel, is just now moving up on the agenda of governments, NGOs and business.

Plastics are immensely useful and have become an essential part of modern life. Much of it is used for packaging and discarded after use. Annually, more than 300 million tons of plastics are produced. This is about 40 kilos per capita on a global basis, and the production has been growing by about 4 percent a year.

Increased production has led to an increasing waste problem. Traditionally, a lot of waste has been deposited in landfills, but this is now strongly discouraged, and advanced economies are moving towards sorting, reusing, recycling and energy recovery. EU has set a binding target that no more than 10 percent of household waste will be deposited in landfills by 2030.