Most paper waste is recyclable. The margin may not be terrific on recycled paper products, except for clean white office paper, but it is usually sufficient to create secondary markets for most paper waste.
The problem arises, however, when that paper is contaminated with food or for some other reason is not recyclable (pizza boxes anyone?). Not only does this potentially contaminate other paper that may be recyclable, but it creates a waste management challenge to municipalities.
So besides using it for campfire kindle, what can we do with it?
A process called thermochemical conversion will take that waste and convert it into usable products, but usually requires superheating, to the tune of 500 degrees C. With that kind of carbon footprint, it’s hard to imagine that this reuse is a worthwhile sustainable effort.
A startup company called Solar Alchemy, which is competing in the 2009 Clean Tech Open in San Francisco, CA, has a proprietary process that will bring that heat requirement down to about 300 degrees. But really, is that much of an improvement? You bet. And not just for the reason you might expect.
Solar Alchemy re-manufactures this waste into toluene, acetic acid and char. These processed chemicals are chemically identical to those chemicals derived from petrochemical sources, according to Michael Hurwitz, founder of Solar Alchemy. It removes an economic benefit for oil companies that would otherwise profit from the production of chemical byproducts like this.
So why is the company called Solar Alchemy? Because, according to Hurwitz, 300 degrees C is the approximate range at which solar thermal heating caps out. So Hurwitz plans to use solar thermal to re-manufacture non-recyclable paper waste into usable chemical products that reduce our contributions to the oil companies’ bottom lines. In essence, then, they’re creating petrochemicals from renewable products using renewable energy. Take that ExxonMobil!
Scott Cooney is the author of Build a Green Small Business: Profitable Ways to Become an Ecopreneur (McGraw-Hill).