Municipalities and sustainability advocates have been in a tizzy over the increased use of plastics. Everything from single-use disposable containers to plastic for industrial use is a cause for concern. The debate, often framed as waste and toxins versus convenience and innovation, often overlooks one fact: plastic arguably should be seen as a valuable resource, not a frivolous nuisance.
The reality is that plastic will never go away. Plastic has some indisputable value, from its role in the preventing the spread of diseases (single use medical devices), to its flexibility and its near weightlessness that makes the material more cost-effective to ship goods long distances. The challenge, however, is that plastic waste continues to accumulate. Anywhere from 300 to 600 million pounds of plastic find their way into landfills each year. More waste diversion initiatives are necessary.
Annual recycling rates for PET bottles hover around 25 to 30 percent now, and even the most aggressive reuse or “upcycle” programs will not address the problem because they only extend plastic’s lifecycle, but all products will eventually become waste. Incineration for energy is one alternative, but many folks are loathe to have a garbage-to-electricity plant near their neighborhoods. One Oregon startup, however, believes it has found a solution, and caught the eye of Silicon Valley venture firm Kleiner Perkins and a large cash infusion from Waste Management.
Agilyx, based in Higard, OR, has developed a process that converts multiple sources of plastic to crude oil. The four-step thermal conversion process converts ground-up waste plastic to a liquid, then gas, and finally synthetic crude oil. Its current base system can produce about 2400 gallons of oil per day out of 10 tons of plastic. Agilyx, which currently has about 30 employees, views itself as a complement to recycling initiatives while diverting plastic out of landfills and therefore extending the life of them landfills. Agilyx’s current capacity may be a mere drop when considering the global thirst for energy, but it is a drop that did not previously exist. Waste Management took notice, and has invested US$22 million in the company.
Waste Management’s interest in Agilyx make perfect synergy. The trash collection giant is more than a fleet of garbage trucks: it has acquired a bevy of recycling companies over the years, and also owns waste-to-energy and landfill gas-to-energy facilities across the United States. With municipalities running out of landfill space, Waste Management realized long ago that the company had to diversify its holdings. The cash infusion allotted to Agilyx should help the company scale its operations beyond the Portland area–timely, indeed, as energy prices will be nothing but volatile this year with the global demand for energy going no where but up.