Researchers developing renewable plastics and exploring new processes for plastics upcycling and recycling technologies will now be able to easily baseline their efforts to current manufacturing practices to understand if their efforts will save energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Benchmark data calculated and compiled at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) provide a measurement—at the supply chain level—of how much energy is required and the amount of greenhouse gases emitted from the production of a variety of plastics in the United States.
“Today, we employ a predominantly linear economy for many of the materials we use, including plastics,” said Gregg Beckham, a senior research fellow at NREL. “Many people and organizations around the world are looking at ways to make our materials economy circular.” To that end, NREL leads the BOTTLE Consortium, a partnership involving research laboratories and universities to develop methods to upcycle today’s waste plastics and redesign tomorrow’s plastics to be recyclable by design. BOTTLE stands for Bio-Optimized Technologies to keep Thermoplastics out of Landfills and the Environment.
Beckham is the senior author of a newly published paper in the journal Joule. The article, titled “ Manufacturing energy and greenhouse gas emissions associated with plastics consumption,” reports on 18 plastics, each with a global consumption of more than 1 million metric tons per year. The co-authors of the study, all from NREL, are Scott Nicholson, Nicholas Rorrer, and Alberta Carpenter. The estimates draw from a resource developed at NREL, the Materials Flows through Industry (MFI) tool, which tracks energy and material flows throughout the manufacturing supply chain to estimate energy requirements and greenhouse gas emissions. “MFI is a publicly available tool that can be readily adapted for new technology options,” Nicholson said. “We’re constantly looking to add new production processes to the database. Researchers can request an MFI account and work with NREL to incorporate their own process data into the tool and calculate impacts for a proposed new supply chain.”