Fossil fuel stakeholders continue to tout carbon capture and sequestration as an effective strategy for picking up the pace of global decarbonization, but they have yet to prove their case. The argument in favor of underground carbon sequestration has become even more difficult to prove with the advent of new carbon recycling technology, as recently illustrated by the latest breakthrough from the firm LanzaTech.
In partnership with Danone and other collaborators, LanzaTech has just reported a new process for converting waste gas to PET plastic.
PET is commonly used for beverage bottles and other throwaway items, so it is fair to ask if continuing to produce throwaway plastic is a sustainable strategy, whether it is made from recycled carbon or not.
Microplastic pollution has emerged as a critical environmental and public health issue, and it could continue to be a problem whether PET is produced from recycled carbon or not. The problem is that there are no simple alternatives.
Biodegradable plastic substitutes could help reduce microplastic impacts related to petrochemical pollution, but land use issues need to be resolved before the global bioeconomy can scale up to replace petrochemicals at scale.
Glassware could replace plastic for bottles and other uses. However, glass is heavy, leading to energy-related issues for shipping and transportation. A widespread return to glass packaging would also run into competition with the construction industry and other economic interests for the global supply of high-quality silica sand.
Above all, coaxing individual consumers into adopting reusable models for their daily needs is a monumental task. Startups like Loop are beginning to spark more interest in reusable consumer packaging, but so far reusables are a vanishingly small part of the market.
If PET and other plastics continue to be a prominent feature in the global economy for the foreseeable future, carbon recycling will continue to be an important strategy for keeping virgin carbon — oil, gas or coal — in the ground.
LanzaTech has previously developed a fermentation-based system for capturing and recycling carbon from steel mill biomass waste gases and biogas, in which the company’s proprietary microbes digest carbon-rich gases to produce the building blocks for petrochemical equivalents. Initial products included ethanol and 2,3 Butanediol, which is a building block for plastics and other substances.
The new LanzaTech-Danone collaboration has added another important petrochemical equivalent to the list, monoethylene glycol, (MEG), a syrupy, liquid substance with many end uses.
“The carbon capture technology uses a proprietary engineered bacterium to convert carbon emissions directly into MEG through fermentation, bypassing the need for an ethanol intermediate, and simplifying the MEG supply chain,” LanzaTech explains.
“We have made a breakthrough in the production of sustainable PET that has vast potential to reduce the overall environmental impact of the process,” added Dr. Jennifer Holmgren, LanzaTech's CEO.
As of this writing, the LanzaTech breakthrough has passed the proof-of-concept stage. If the technology reaches the commercial market, the impact on the global economy will be significant, as indicated by an MEG fact sheet produced by Shell about 10 years ago.
“Mono-ethylene glycol - or MEG - is a vital ingredient for the production of polyester fibres and film, polyethylene terephthalate (PET) resins and engine coolants,” Shell explained. “End uses for MEG range from clothing and other textiles, through packaging to kitchenware, engine coolants and antifreeze.”
Shell also listed polyester and fleece fabrics, upholstery, carpets and pillows, light and sturdy polyethylene terephthalate drink and food containers, paper, adhesives, inks, and more.
“Global MEG demand was around 21 million tonnes in 2010. Forecasts suggest that by 2015, demand could be above 28 million tonnes per year,” Shell added.
The MEG market has continued to expand since then. As of January 2022, the firm Transparency Market Research noted that “increasing use of monoethylene glycol in the textile industry is likely to foster the growth of the global monoethylene glycol market during the forecast period, from 2021 to 2031.”
“Demand for monoethylene glycol is increasing rapidly across Latin America and the Middle East & Africa, owing to expanding PET and polyester usage in these regions,” the report forecasted.
That could be the tip of the iceberg. LanzaTech’s new breakthrough is not the only worrisome development for fans of carbon capture and sequestration. Carbon recycling is also beginning to emerge in other market areas, including spirits and perfumes.
Image credit: Jasmin Sessler via Unsplash
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.
We're compiling all data!