From Exploration to Testing: The Feasibility of Non-Recyclable Plastic Waste to End-Uses

October 4, 2021

From non-recyclable plastic waste to brick and tiles for non-load bearing structures

Why is it important to explore portfolio of options for plastic waste? How does the Accelerator Lab in Nepal plan to test wide range of unexplored options? The basic intent is to create value proposition for non-recyclable plastic waste in such a way that it could be brought into the loop of circular economy so that tons of plastic waste could be diverted from landfill with the hypothesis - “If non-recyclable multi-layer plastics are recycled, upcycled and turned into energy; they can create a valuable market, create local jobs and boost local economy, and reduce environmental degradation, all at the same time.” This blog explains what and how Accelerator Lab in Nepal explored and tested few possible options to check the feasibility of converting non-recyclable plastics to end-uses.

The demand and gap analysis reflected from the “Three Horizon Thinking” exercise conducted within the explorers’ of Regional Bureau of Asia and Pacific (RBAP) for signals mapping in mid-2020 and exploratory research on plastic waste management conducted by Accelerator Lab in Nepal in early 2021 has driven my focus towards exploring and testing multiple options on bringing plastic waste into circular economy via generating new products like plastic bricks or transforming plastics into Refused Derived Fuel (RDF). Since there already exist value and market for recyclable plastics in Nepal, my interest was more towards the non-recyclable multilayer plastics that were eventually dumped in landfill.

I completely understand that the ultimate solution to any form of waste is not creating it at the first place. But if that is beyond our control then some forms of mitigating measures are required while the transformative changes on alternatives to plastics happen. After series of interactions with 30+ private sectors, community-based organizations, non-government organizations and research institutes working in the areas of plastics, a pool of feasible options for Nepal were diagnosed and prioritized based on their feasibility against the importance, as per the current scenario and average level of acceptance from 293 municipalities, including metropolitan and sub-metropolitan cities. These prioritized options further required emission and viability testing, cost analysis and supply chain mechanisms to ensure the possibility of transforming non-recyclable plastic waste to preferrable uses as a resource. Hence, UNDP Accelerator Lab in Nepal explored and tested few of these options.

The journey since the past eight months has been a shift from potential ideas towards viable results. I would like to break this process into three phases. The initial phase of exploring and prototyping the ideas and options were challenging and daunting due to the issues related to failures and negative test results before reaching the optimum standard to meet the national criteria. The second phase of testing the prototypes for market viability was distressing, especially convincing potential partners like local governments, private sectors and community to conduct a trial. Though the conversation of collaboration started way before the initial phases, it took the longest time and effort during the whole exploratory journey and required immense patience, empathy, and ability to listen to the concerns raised regardless of any situation or fear of not being able to move forward. And there are both pain points of multiple reiterations and gain points of better modifications throughout the process, resulting in the third phase. After convincing Pokhara Metropolitan City Office in the case of plastic bricks, and private industrial factories like Ghorahi Cement Industry Private Limited and Madhyapur Clay Crafts Private Limited in the case of Refused Derived Fuel (RDF), it was rewarding to be able to understand a proof of concept on the prototypes in the third phase; and what a feeling of relief and satisfaction it was. Here, let me give you a gist of major waste to resource concepts that Accelerator Lab in Nepal explored and tested both in terms of environmental and economic viability.  

The first one is on plastic bricks. UNDP Accelerator Lab in Nepal, together with Green Roads Waste Management Private Limited (GRWM) and Pokhara Metropolitan City, conducted series of quality tests, material analysis tests, compressibility tests for multiple plastic brick prototypes with different ratio of non-recyclable plastic to concrete. Among them, the mixture of 0.75% to 1% multi-layered plastics met the standard compliance of National Building Code, and hence approved by the Pokhara Metropolitan City Office for the construction of non-load bearing structures. As a demonstration unit of plastic bricks, a model toilet was constructed and handed over to the laboratory of the Metropolitan City Office; where over 40,000 pieces of waste food wrappers were accommodated.

Plastic mixed brick

When the feasibility of plastic bricks showed the result of replacing only 1% of the aggregate and plastic roads replacing maximum 15% of the bitumen, the idea of exploring and testing the concept of RDF in energy-driven units like cement clinkers and pottery making industries surfaced. As a result, Accelerator Lab in Nepal has been exploring together with Avni Ventures to research the possibility of using non-recyclable plastics as an alternative fuel in cement factories while for the pottery making factories, the research is being done together with Centre for Energy and Environment Nepal (CEEN).

According to Ms. Shilshila Acharya of Avni Venture, “The initial test of 5 tons of non-recyclable plastic in Ghorahi Cement Factory has shown 7,500 calorific value with a potential to replace at least 5% of the imported coal in the future”. Similarly, Dr. Ramesh Man Singh of CEEN said, “the RDF constituting 50% non-recyclable plastics and 50% paper has a calorific value of around 5,500 kcal which can replace the fuelwood used in the pottery factories. Preliminary tests in Madhyapur Clay Craft Private Limited have shown that 135 kg of fuelwood was required to bring the temperature of the kiln to 825oC in 9.20 hours, whereas only 70 kg of RDF (50:50 plastics and paper) was required for the same in 5.50 hours and the emission level for RDF is much lower than the standard values designated by the government for brick kilns”. Though these tests have shown positive results in terms of economic viability and environmental acceptance, they will require approval from Nepal Bureau of Standards and Metrology (NBSM) for large scale production and utilization. Accelerator Lab in Nepal plans to submit the existing test results to the NBSM and initiate policy and implementation dialogues as the next steps.

From wastepaper and non-recyclable plastics in the ratio of 50:50 to Refused Derived Fuel for pottery factories

One of the other potential options is the use of pyrolysis to convert plastic waste into fuel. During early exploration, it was found that Nepal Academy of Science and Technology (NAST) has conducted academic research on the environmental and quality aspect of the petroleum and diesel made out of plastics. According to Dr. Eng. Rabindra Prasad Dhakal, Chief of Faculty of Technology of NAST, “the quality standard of the diesel from plastics is of Euro Standard 6 and has the potential to replace the need of existing fuel.” NAST has already conducted vehicular emission tests and performance tests on engine that has been proven successful, however, there are few concerns in terms of its commercial viability and business model, which are yet to be explored and requires detail analysis to be further simplified. In this regards, Accelerator Lab in Nepal is having conversation with NAST, private sectors like Blue Waste to Value and possible local governments on the potential for localized testing to prepare a business model if the process is feasible and approved by the NBSM.  

Pyrolysis machine used for preliminary tests at NAST

This journey of exploration and testing ideas and options for plastic waste management has given me a perspective on systemic view and integrated and interrelated approaches with greater potential on contributing towards economic, environmental and sustainable development. It has also opened up the possibilities of scaling them up at the local level. For example, the Pokhara Metropolitan City Office has already included the rates of plastic roads in the District rate while the Waling Municipality has been showing interest in contributing on the production of plastic roads and plastic bricks.

Over 300+ interactions with focal persons of local governments, engineers, Solid Waste Management experts, environment enthusiasts, scholars, researchers, students and waste workers have helped in bringing collective efforts to unpack the complexity of plastic waste. During the whole process, there are few key players that kept the team moving forward regardless of adverse risks and challenges, including the second wave of COVID in Nepal. These are non-other than the partners like GRWM, Avni Ventures, CEEN; municipal officials and lab technicians of Pokhara Metropolitan City Office; research and academic institutions like NAST, Kathmandu University, Bikash Udhyami; and waste workers who have transformed our vision and ideas into reality.

Onsite demonstration to waste workers on proper waste segregation of non-recyclable waste and its value proposition.

UNDP Accelerator Lab in Nepal is working closely with development partners, the private sectors and grassroot innovators as a “vehicle” to test innovative solutions around unplanned urbanization and unemployment. It is on a quest to invest technical expertise on these two frontier issues in order to map, and explore a portfolio of experiments to foresee more possibilities.