by Angela Abaño, Mari Chiong, Spencer Galit, Ysa Gohh, Cody Ipapo, and Rajah Padaen
I first met Satchy at the landfill together with her entire clan of sachets. She also introduced me to her distant cousins who were on the streets, in rivers and bodies of water, near drainage systems, or as we say, kung saan-saan. There were billions of them! It was an overwhelming sight.
Satchy told me about how she felt that she had lost meaning in her life. When she was first born, her mission was to bring shampoo to someone who needed it. Her relatives, on the other hand, brought with them conditioner, detergent, fabric softener, dishwashing liquid, toothpaste, powdered drinks, ketchup, and the like. However, once they had given all that they had, there was no longer any use for them. They were torn and empty—empty of meaning.
Satchy was dismayed. She had a terrible existential crisis and always asked herself why she had to exist to begin with. Why did the humans have to make use of sachets that ended up as a burden to the environment, when they could’ve just used bottles to begin with? Sachets like me are a one-time use packaging; while bottles can be reused and recycled!
The reality is that single-use sachets make products more affordable for those with low income. People could buy products in small quantities for when they need them. Sachets are also efficient for packaging, as they “[create] less waste by weight per millilitre of product sold than bottles.” The problem then is disposal. Being multi-layered plastics, it is difficult to recycle them. Sachets also do not have “sufficient economic value” for collection and recycling (Unilever , n.d.). In other words, “empty sachets are generally considered not worth collecting because they are small and lightweight so they lack value” (Unilever, 2012, p. 38). Moreover, there are limited infrastructure for recycling or disposal; hence sachets end up in landfills and “become an environmental eyesore” (Unilever , n.d.).
Not all hope was lost, however. Unilever, one of the biggest producers of merchandise that are packaged with the likes of Satchy, would churn out over 40 billion sachets each year (HUL, n.d.). The day came that they realized a change was in order.
One approach was the improvement of their sachet design. They have successfully “optimized the use of laminate material, significantly reducing solid waste by weight” (HUL, n.d.). Another method that they are currently using is called pyrolysis, which converts the sachets into fuel. What they are focusing on now is improving their method of collecting used sachets, which I will expound on later.
Pyrolysis is a process that “offers a closed loop system which involves catalytic depolymerisation of plastics into fuel” (HUL, 2012, p. 14). Plastic laminates in general, and in our case sachets, are depolymerized in a reactor and are converted into molten state and then a vapor. The vapor is thus condensed into general ‘fuel oil’ (HUL, n.d.; Unilever , n.d.). Their factories can use the fuel as furnace oil or similar industrial applications (HUL, 2012). Through this method, up to 60% of the energy embedded in the sachets is recovered (Unilever , n.d.).
This process has shown to be worthwhile to Unilever. While still in the early days of Unilever’s use of pyrolysis, their Hindustan Unilever factory in Pondicherry, India was successfully able to use the extracted fuel from sachet waste in powering its plant. “The fuel [had] also been burnt in cement kilns in Western India” (Unilever , n.d.). In 2009, their study in Asia showed that pyrolysis was “an effective technological approach to dealing with sachet waste,” for most of the energy used in manufacturing the sachets was recovered. This also offered them “a practical solution to the problem of sachet litter.” Whereas in 2010, they carried out “assessments of various waste to energy options to determine commercial viability and [they] concluded that pyrolysis was the most promising option.” Hence, they have been working with their supplier in India to establish a distillation column in order to make the oil useful and profitable (Unilever , n.d.).
All in all, Unilever was encouraged by the results of pyrolysis. They were able to show what they call the “technical proof of principle” of converting “sachets, pouches and other flexible plastic waste into fuel oil at a viable cost” (Unilever , n.d.).
Lookin’ good, Satchy!
Based on studies and tests outside Unilever, pyrolysis of the low density polyethylene waste resulting from sachets yields an 80% reduction in its solid waste volume. When done at a low temperature between 250 to 1400°C for 300 seconds, the process yields 2.53% ethane, 21.67% propane and 75.82% propylene which can be used in the production of more packaging material. At a higher temperature range between 500 to 2500°C, 48.57% (iso and normal) butane is produced. These noncondensable gases produced during the formation of fuel oil from waste polyethylene can serve as feedstock and fuel gas. Beyond this range at a higher temperature, no usable products are yielded (Ademiluyi and Adebayo, 2007).
To evaluate the potential of pyrolysed sachets to produce different products, the material underwent the process at different temperature ranges: 130 to 190°C, 200 to 300°C, and 300 to 450°C. Below 200°C, majority of the waste (78%) was reduced to wax and this wax content decreases with increasing temperature. When pyrolysing the material at 450°C, 86.5% of fuel oil is recovered, making this the ideal pyrolysis temperature. From a chromatographic analysis of the resulting fuel oil, a variety of paraffins, isoparaffins, olefins, naphthalenes, aromatics and polyaromatics were shown to be present. This solidifies the effectiveness of the pyrolysis process as these substances can be further refined into kerosene and gasoline for a wide variety of uses (Ademiluyi and Adebayo, 2007).
In analyzing the resulting fuel oil, its physical and structural properties were found to approximate those of Aviation fuel JP-4, a common fuel utilized by the US Air force. Because of this, the resulting fuel oil from pyrolysis can substitute for JP–4 and provide the aviation industry with a cheaper and sustainable fuel alternative than crude oil (Ademiluyi and Akpan 2007). A study on the pyrolysis of low density polyethylene waste plastics conclude that every product of the pyrolysis of this plastic is useful (Osueke and Ofondu, 2011). Another study that used mixed plastics in the pyrolysis process report a mass balance output of only 8% total losses and 4% residual char due to contaminants while the rest had been converted to usable products. It reports that the char material are fit for landfill disposal after passing proper acid leaching tests. The emissions of the process are also minimal, due to the closed nature of the process and the capture of all products within the reactor used (Thorat et. al, 2013).
Pyrolysis seems to offer a step in the right direction for two issues: the reduction of litter caused by the disposal of these sachets, as well as the question of what energy sources are available for the pyrolysis process, as well as other industrial processes. Pyrolysis offers a particularly attractive method of dealing with sachets, since they are usually not recycled due to their nature as multi-layered plastics, as well as lacking any intrinsic recyclable value by reusing them as valuable energy sources. It appears to be a neat system that can partially provide its own energy source by using the fuels it produces and feeding it back into the process.
What did you mean by a “sustainable fuel alternative”?
Sustainability, or particularly sustainable development, is defined as “development that meets present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (WCED 1987, Chapter 2; qtd. in Dayrit, 2011, p. 234). It is the fulfillment of needs without compromising the environment, society, and the economy simultaneously. It is thus the present generation’s responsibility to ensure that future generations will still have the environmental, social and economic resources needed for survival (Dayrit, 2011, p. 236).
Keeping sustainability in mind is important, for the reality is that society operates within physical limits. Sources of energy and raw materials are finite. Even the sinks for our waste energy and waste materials are finite (Dayrit, 2011, p. 239). Sustainable development aims to make sure that these essentials do not run out.
In the context of sachet waste, pyrolysis allows the recycling of energy used in manufacturing sachets. Instead of using new fuel, the fuel redeemed from sachets can be used. This keeps our finite sources of energy in check by reducing our consumption of fossil fuels or other types of energy directly from the environment. In terms of the finite sinks for our waste, by converting used sachets into energy, there would be less disposal of sachet waste into landfills.
Fabian M. Dayrit (2011) explains that “sustainable development can be conceptualized as three interdependent and interacting systems: the environment, society, and the economy” (p. 239). Pyrolysis of sachet waste is effective for it affects all three. In terms of the environment, sachets don’t go directly into landfills, hence taking up less land area in dumpsites. There are also no harmful byproducts to pyrolysis, thus ensuring environmental well-being. Society is also still able to purchase products in sachets, which are cheaper than those in bottles. For the economy, pyrolysis provides an alternative source of fuel at a viable cost, thus there is less need to purchase new fuel. Also, since all the products of pyrolysis are useful, there are numerous benefits that society can take into advantage. The different types of fuel that can be produced may power various machinery. This also aids the environment as it decreases the rate of fossil fuel consumption.
“As well as an obvious environmental benefit, this route offers potential social and economic benefits, too, through job creation and alternative sources of income for poor communities. We have a global task force working to reduce sachet waste through technology and education – and possibly by helping to create a whole new market for reuse” (Unilever , n.d.).
Bibo and I have BIG dreams for the future!
Research shows that the process of the pyrolysis of plastics can be used on a majority of types of waste plastics produced by households. That is to say, curbside collection of plastic wastes do not need to undergo a very selective sorting process to find suitable stocks of plastics for pyrolysis. This also means that plastic wastes apart from sachets can be utilized in pyrolysis. Plastics usable in the process of pyrolysis include Polyethylene (PE), Polypropylene (PP), Polystyrene (PS), ABS resin (ABS), and Fiber Reinforced Plastics (FRP). The plastics PET, Polyvinylchloride (PVC), and Polyurethane (PUR) are, unfortunately, unsuitable for pyrolysis (Thorat et. al, 2013). This shows a potentially broad range of plastic waste products that it can use as feedstock, and can help address the issue of plastic waste disposal beyond merely sachets, as well as provide a new source of energy. As pyrolysis also produces different kinds of fuel, the range of technology that it can power shows the potential of being extremely wide.
Pyrolysis, as a solution, seems to possess much potential. In order to successfully utilize it as a solution to our need for sustainability, we need to be able to ensure that pyrolysis as a process can be scaled to a larger level in order to meet the tons upon tons of plastic wastes we produce every year. Now, we must look to establish the necessary infrastructure, as well as other necessary things in order to make a meaningful dent to our problem of waste disposal and energy. The facilities used in the different research papers on pyrolysis have given us the proof of concept, and given the way the process goes, it does not seem far fetched to scale them up in order for them to answer our needs.
We must now also look into further research into the refinement of the hydrocarbon molecules produced by pyrolysis into even more desirable products, for this may help in establishing the streamlining of the process on an industrial level, as well as helping address the demand these products. Knowing how to effectively produce high-valued products can help further incentivise the proper collection of plastic wastes, and it can aid in the further setting up of systems for their collection. In the same way that most people don’t dump their glass bottles anywhere because there is a deposit to be collected, perhaps people will think twice before tossing their plastic wrappers aside because they can still redeem significant value from it.
Going back to Unilever, we may ask ourselves, is the company using pyrolysis at the optimum level? They have reported that pyrolysis has yielded them up to 60% of the embedded fuel in sachet waste. However, according to the studies previously mentioned, fuel oil redemption can reach all the way up to 86.5%. There is therefore much more potential than what Unilever currently practices. They need to develop their technology further, as well as use pyrolysis under the right conditions (temperature- and time length-wise) in order to gain the full potential of the process.
Unilever’s present concern revolves around the collection of used sachets. They call it one of their “biggest barriers” (Unilever, 2012, p. 38) as they are searching for ways to “incentivise sachet collection on a large scale.” They are exploring working in partnership with others who use flexible plastic waste, with municipal authorities, and representative collectors of recyclable waste in order to foster “an economically viable, effective and sustainable solution” (Unilever , n.d.).
Unilever is also seeking to further develop their technology as they aim for a “scale-up” (Unilever , n.d.). In 2012, they were able to “[identify] a new technology which [they] believe is the next generation to pyrolysis.” They conducted small-scale trials that resulted in a high yield and superior quality end product. Unilever is now in negotiations with the developer and other value-chain partners as they aim to commission the first commercial plant in Indonesia during 2013 (Unilever, 2012, p. 38). Hindustan Unilever Limited (the Unilever in India) is also exploring “long-term techno-commercial feasibility of different technology options” to further sachet waste recovery (HUL, 2012).
“We are investigating the potential of a new technology to find uses for sachet waste. We believe this will generate higher value returns for sachet waste, thereby helping us to build a stronger business case, which for the moment remains a challenge” (Unilever, 2012, p. 38).
Back to the Motherland
How about things back at home, Bibo?
Unilever in the Philippines has its own Sachet Recovery Program, which recovers Surf sachets (the most numerous among its products) and converts them into cement pavers for beneficiary public schools nationwide. They were able to collect a total of 10 million sachets in the year of its launch, and they hope to collect “more than double last year’s number to around 25 million sachets” this year now that they were able to partner with giants Smart Communication and Cebuana Lhuillier (Remo, 2013).
The unique sachet recovery model of the three goes as follows: Filipinos are urged to exchange their empty Surf sachets at any of of the 1,800 Cebuana branches all over the country for 25 free Smart texts. This will allow for an easier way of recovering the waste while making it more convenient and rewarding for Filipinos. These collected sachets will then be converted into items such as construction boards and fuel (Remo, 2013). Unilever Global should be able to get ideas from Unilever Philippines for its collection strategy.
Since the formalization of the agreement among the three early this year, the project had produced about 30,000 cement pavers to be donated to 30 beneficiary public schools. Replacing a portion of sand and gravel in a cement mix, these pavers can be used for purposes such as paving roads and building infrastructure. It can be noted that for every 1000 pavers, about 800 kilograms of sachets will be needed (Remo, 2013).
Cool! You must be proud to be Pinoy! Is there pyrolysis in the Philippines, too?
Not at the same industrial level as Unilever Global. Based on my research, there was a man who was able to convert plastic bags into fuel using pyrolysis. They sent their process to the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) for analysis, and patented it in 2008. What they need now are facilities to take this to a larger scale.
So basically what are being made out of used sachets by Unilever Philippines are cement blocks?
In my opinion, however, converting the sachets into fuel is essentially more sustainable than using them for cement blocks. With pyrolysis, most of the fuel used to make the sachets are recovered and can be used to create new sachets or to power other things. It then becomes a cycling and recycling of fuel. In the case of making cement blocks, new fuel will always be used to manufacture the sachets. Hence, the cement blocks may solve the problem of disposal, but there is still a continual depletion of fuel from the environment.
What Unilever Philippines, or Filipino scientists and innovators in general, may pursue now is having large-scale systems for pyrolysis similar to Unilever Global. We have the potential, we have the innovative minds, and Unilever as well as the government most likely have the capital. We have the abundance of used sachets. What we need now is to make it happen.
Satchy, fuel ka ba?
Hindi pa ba halata? Bucket?
Kasi ikaw nagpapatakbo ng buhay ko. :”>
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*The sources of the photos are found as links on the pictures themselves. (Click the pictures.)