Norway’s co-processing system offers new solutions to region’s plastic problems


A team of Western scientists, led by a Norwegian expert, have come up with a “win-win solution” for eliminating single-use plastic and expanding business opportunities.

The solution, dubbed “co-processing”, uses waste as a source of energy to replace fossil fuels.

“This co-processing system has been used in Norway’s cement kilns for more than 30 years to treat hazardous organic waste. It has also been shown to significantly reduce plastic waste,” said Dr Kåre Helge Karstensen, chief scientist at the Norwegian Foundation for Scientific and Industrial Research (Sintef).

Karstensen is also the project manager for Ocean Plastic turned into an Opportunity in Circular Economy (OPTOCE).

Despite the eagerness with which nations discuss and act on recycling plastic and developing new types of plastic, more than 5 billion tonnes of plastic waste has now accumulated in dumpsites and landfills across the world, he said. 

Norway’s co-processing system offers new solutions to region’s plastic problems

He was speaking at the two-day OPTOCE Regional Forum held in Bangkok on October 28 in a move to seek cooperation from the business sector.

“An estimated 9.3 billion tonnes of virgin plastics were produced globally up to 2019. Of this, around 6.3 billion tonnes have ended up as plastic waste, with only 9 per cent recycled and 12 per cent incinerated – 79 per cent was dumped. If current production and waste-management trends continue, roughly 12 billion tonnes of plastic waste will be in landfills or the natural environment by 2050,” he warned.

Norway’s co-processing system offers new solutions to region’s plastic problems

Even worse, this plastic waste will eventually find its way into the ground, rivers, and ocean, he said. Numerous studies have demonstrated the presence of "microplastic," or extremely small pieces of plastic, in both human blood vessels and marine life.

"The problem is that few people are talking about how to properly accumulate and eliminate single-use plastic. International action is key to tackling the most significant sources of plastic litter in the oceans," Karstensen said.


Pilot project
OPTOCE projects seek to discover the best way to deal with plastic waste management, particularly single-use plastic, across the world.

However, OPTOCE needs to provide more successful examples to encourage different parties to use the co-processing method.

Hence, a pilot project was officially launched in 2019 in five partner countries, namely Thailand, India, China, Myanmar and Vietnam.

These countries were chosen because they are among the world’s largest plastic consumers, producing about 217,000 tonnes of plastic waste per day or 79 million tonnes per year.

They are all plagued by inadequate waste management infrastructure and treatment capacity.

In addition, with close to 3 billion people living along coastlines, they need an immediate solution to this problem. It is estimated that more than 80 per cent of marine debris originates on land.

These countries are also industrially intensive and use a lot of fuel to make cement and steel.

“Some pilot countries, such as Thailand, already use incineration. However, when compared to co-processing, this method is not suitable as a long-term solution. This is because the incineration process still emits carbon dioxide,” Dr Karstensen said.

Incineration is a waste-treatment process that involves the combustion of waste materials' constituents. Waste-to-energy plants are commonly used in industrial waste incineration plants.

"There is no dedicated incinerator for organic hazardous waste in Norway. Today, over 75 per cent of coal is replaced by various wastes from the Norwegian cement industry," Karstensen added.

Businesses can have a sustainable source of energy, reduce carbon emissions and help communities get rid of plastic waste thanks to this pilot project, which diverts single-use plastic and turns it into fuel.

Unfortunately, Karstensen said, this project is moving at snail’s pace due to the Covid-19 pandemic. He added that now is the time to act quickly and investigate the advantages and disadvantages of bringing the cement industry into plastic-waste management in Thailand and other countries in the region.


Norway’s co-processing system offers new solutions to region’s plastic problems

Alternative business opportunities
Karstensen said the co-processing technology will not just improve the circular economy, but will also reduce the plastic waste in oceans, boost waste-treatment capacities and establish sustainable, cost-effective integrated waste-management options.

With many countries focusing on responsibility and sustainability, Karstensen said he is confident that co-processing will offer business opportunities for some entrepreneurs.

"The ‘polluter pays principle’ is a common rule in the West. It means that the company that generates the waste and pollutes the environment must pay waste-management fees,” he said.

Though the investment is significant, the co-processing company will profit from both waste elimination and the sale of carbon footprint quotas. The company will also get to save money on fuel consumption and raw materials.


Norway’s co-processing system offers new solutions to region’s plastic problems

Let market mechanisms work
The goal of the pilot project, Karstensen said, is to foster collaboration among private firms so they are willing to invest in equipment, technology, talent, and licence.

He said a pilot project in China, launched in 2005 in collaboration with a local environmental agency, began with no co-processing plant and has now grown to more than 200 co-processing cement kilns.

"The Chinese government just did one project as a model and let the private sector across the country learn the [co-processing] technology," Karstensen explained.

He said the project does not require any financial support from governments. All they need to do is enact and support some regulations that are strictly enforced.

"The Malaysian government once tried to do it on their own and the project went bankrupt. As a result, it demonstrates that simply allowing the market to run its course is sufficient," Karstensen explained.

He concluded that the OPTOCE would take co-processing or integrated waste management into consideration. By substituting non-recyclable plastic waste for some of the coal could prevent a significant amount of plastic from entering the ocean.

This would reduce reliance on fossil fuels and indirectly cut greenhouse gas emissions by not building new landfills or incinerators.