By Lee Patrick Sullivan, energyNow!
Sewage probably isn’t topping any lists of the most promising new sustainability innovations. Beyond being the butt of jokes, what other good can come out of human waste? Well, one company thinks they’ve figured out how sewage can reduce our environmental impact and oil dependence.
Wastewater treatment plants could be a gold mine in the quest to replace the petroleum used to make plastic for packaging. energyNOW! correspondent Lee Patrick Sullivan got a whiff of how sewer sludge is being turned into sustainable plastic.
You’ve probably never given a lot of thought to wastewater, but it’s a major issue. Water treatment plants process more than 150 million gallons of wastewater every day. When the treated water is released into a river or ocean, it leaves behind more than four million tons of sludge, mostly burned or trucked away to landfills.
That’s where Micromidas comes in. It’s been known for a while that a chemical in wastewater can be used to make plastic, but the challenge has always been extracting and converting it at a competitive price compared to the source of most of America’s plastic – oil.
The breakthrough lies in Micromidas’ proprietary process. The company takes sludge, renders it to a liquid and applies a cocktail of designer microbes. The chemical reactions that follow change the liquid’s composition into a thicker product, which is then run through an extruding machine, producing plastic.
Micromidas’ idea could mean big business. Nearly five percent of the oil consumed in America, about 300 million barrels a year, goes into making plastic products like shopping bags and water bottles. Combined with reducing the impact of sludge being transported and buried at landfills, plastic from sewage makes sense.
Even so, there’s still the stigma of plastic from poop. But don’t worry; their product is only designed for use in tertiary packaging, meaning third-level packaging like the layer of plastic surrounding a DVD player or the wrap that secures products on pallets at big box stores around the country.
Other bioplastics are already on the market, but they’re derived from plants and are generally more expensive than oil-based plastic. These products require land, fertilizer, and water. By comparison, Bissel says all his technology requires is a laboratory and ingredients unlikely to run out any time soon.
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