Could Melting Plastic Warm our Homes?

Solving two problems in one go, researchers believe melting plastic waste could heat homes in the future. Not only would this help reduce the problem of waste plastic causing pollution, it could also create a viable fuel source. New research shows the breakthrough could even cause less greenhouse gas emissions.

Warming up

© terovesalainen / Adobe Stock

Scientists at the University of Chester have been researching how the used plastic waste can produce hydrogen. This could heat homes and also fuel cars, without creating as many harmful greenhouse gases which are damaging the ozone layer.

They have discovered that by heating a glass kiln to a massive 1,000°C, the process breaks down plastic that cannot be recycled by other methods. This releases gases, including hydrogen, to produce heat.

Pilot scheme

A pilot scheme to try out the technology commercially will be launched later this year at an Ellesmere Port plant in Cheshire, as a result of financial support from waste-energy companies.

The plant is owned by Peele Environmental, who says the project could use some 25 million tonnes of contaminated plastics, which are not recyclable. Otherwise, they would end up in landfill.

The resulting hydrogen could help the UK to meet its climate change target, as it could replace the traditional gas that has been used for decades in radiators, boilers and stoves. Looking ahead, it could also replace diesel and petrol in the vehicles of the future.

Viable process

Professor Joe Howe, one of the researchers at the University of Chester, says the new process will make waste plastic valuable, as it will be used as a power source and help to stop the used plastic ending up in our oceans, where it is causing pollution.

The pilot scheme aims to trap the gases and pipe them into a power plant that will generate electricity. They say this will be no more harmful than the current gas-fired power plants in use across the UK. It would also mean it was unnecessary to extract more gas from underground.

However, environmentalists are sceptical about whether the process will offer a viable solution to the plastic problem. They say that although hydrogen itself isn't a harmful gas, the plastic processing could create a damaging greenhouse gas, methane.

Joint initiative

Scientists at the university liaised with Powerhouse Energy on the project. The company hopes to interest its counterparts in Japan and south-east Asia (where hydrogen already fuels buses) in the new technology.

The ministry of economy, trade and industry in Japan has already written to Powerhouse Energy expressing support for the scheme and believes it provides "many environmental advantages".

It could be used as a substitute for coal-fired electricity, which is used in Asia and creates almost double the amount of carbon emissions compared with a gas plant.

 A cautious welcome

In the UK, the Committee on Climate Change (the government’s climate watchdog) is cautiously welcoming the scheme, although it warns that anyone using the process to create hydrogen must be able to trap and store the connected carbon emissions in order to meet the government’s targets.

The British Plastics Federation is a keen supporter of providing energy from waste - a field that has grown rapidly over the past decade. It believes used plastics should be managed at the "optimum level", with recycling taking place whenever it's economically and technically viable.

Solent Plastics is a keen supporter of the responsible use of plastics. We stock a variety of plastic storage boxes, which are durable enough to be used time and time again.

We also stock a selection of recycling waste bins to help individuals, schools and businesses to organise their own recycling schemes.