Recycling plastics takes a whole lot of water. Cleaning the plastics and removing the labels takes an average plant about 100,000 gallons of water a day. This requirement, combined with California’s strict regulations on water, means that a significant amount of recyclable plastic never gets processed and put back into the loop. San Francisco-based ECO2 has come up with a clever solution that requires no water, and actually utilizes CO2 emissions from power plants.
PET is the largest polymer used in the US, with Americans consuming about 11 billion pounds of it every year. Over half of this amount comes in the form of plastic bottles. Only 1.4 billion pounds is actually collected for recycling each year. Part of the reason why so little is recycled is because until just a few years ago, there wasn’t a single West Coast PET recycler – all because of that pesky use of water, on which California is understandably strict. ECO2’s new method eliminates the water and chemicals used to clean plastic, which means they only lose about 500 gallons of water a day to evaporation, versus the 25,000 to 100,000 gallons of other plants.
Their process is a closed-loop system of using a biodegradable and FDA-approved biosolvent that cleans the plastic. The used biosolvent is distilled, where the sugars and glue from the plastics are removed and the carbon vapors are captured. The vapors are converted back into a liquid and the solvent goes back into the system. The liquid CO2 used to clean the bottles comes from power plant emissions – so ECO2 uses recycled waste to recycle waste. Nifty!
ECO2 has one plant in Riverbank, CA and another slated to start operations in 2009. They hope to have between 5 and 10 plants eventually scattered across the US, and a few more international plants. With the cost of a new plant running only about $15 million – all expenses included – I wouldn’t be surprised to see these pop up fairly quickly. They are still waiting to receive FDA approval to use their recycled plastic in new bottles, but should that come through, which it likely will, the demand for the recycled plastic will be here since big companies like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo are looking to add more PET into their packaging. Coca-Cola has set a goal to have all bottles contain at least 25% post-consumer PET by 2025. ECO2 will definitely have a market for their finished product.
The company isn’t going to limit itself to PET, either. They have plans to recycle HDPE – the stuff used in containers like milk jugs and detergents – as well as ASR – auto shredder residue. Using CO2 emissions to recycle is a great idea, and I am on the prowl to find out more information about how much CO2 the plant itself will actually emit, and how the CO2 bath may affect the recycled plastics.