Trash & Burn: Big Brands Stoke Cement Kilns with Plastic Waste as Recycling Falters
Consumer goods giants are funding projects to send plastic trash to cement plants, where it is burned as cheap energy. They’re touting it as a way to keep plastic out of dumps and use less fossil fuel. Critics say it undercuts recycling efforts and worsens air quality. One said it was “like moving the landfill from the ground to the sky.”
These machines are unearthing rubbish to provide fuel to power a nearby cement plant. Discarded bubble wrap, take-out containers, and single-use shopping bags have become one of the fastest-growing sources of energy for the world’s cement industry.
The Indonesian project, funded in part by Unilever PLC, maker of Dove soap and Hellmann’s mayonnaise, is part of a worldwide effort by big multinationals to burn more plastic waste in cement kilns, Reuters has detailed for the first time.
This “fuel” is not only cheap and abundant. It’s the centerpiece of a partnership between consumer-products giants and cement companies aimed at burnishing their environmental credentials. They’re promoting this approach as a win-win for a planet choking on plastic waste. Converting plastic to energy, these companies contend, keeps it out of landfills and oceans while allowing cement plants to move away from burning coal, a major contributor to global warming.
Reuters has identified nine collaborations launched over the last two years between various combinations of consumer goods giants and major cement makers. Four leading sources of plastic packaging are involved: The Coca-Cola Company, Unilever, Nestle S.A., and Colgate-Palmolive Company. On the cement side of the deals are four top producers: Switzerland’s Holcim Group, Mexico’s Cemex SAB de CV, PT Solusi Bangun Indonesia Tbk (SBI), and Republic Cement & Building Material Inc, a company in the Philippines.
These projects span the world, from Costa Rica to the Philippines, El Salvador to India. In Indonesia, for instance, Unilever is partnering with SBI, one of that country’s largest cement makers.
The alliances come as the cement industry – the source of 7% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions – faces rising pressure to reduce these greenhouse gases. Consumer brands, meanwhile, are feeling the heat from lawmakers who are banning or taxing single-use plastic packaging and pushing so-called polluter-pays legislation to make producers bear the costs of its clean up.
Critics say there’s little green about burning plastic, which is derived from oil, to make cement. A dozen sources with direct knowledge of the practice, among them scientists, academics and environmentalists, told Reuters that plastic burned in cement kilns emits harmful air emissions and amounts to swapping one dirty fuel for another. More importantly, environmental groups say, it’s a strategy that could potentially undercut efforts spreading globally to boost recycling rates and dramatically slash the production of single-use plastic.
Less than 10% of all the plastic ever made has been recycled, in large part because it’s too costly to collect and sort. Plastic production, meanwhile, is projected to double within 20 years.
Such thinking is naive, said Axel Pieters, chief executive of Geocycle, the waste-management arm of Holcim Group, one of the world’s largest cement makers and partner with Nestle, Unilever, and Coca-Cola in plastic-fuel ventures. Pieters told Reuters that burning plastic in cement kilns is a safe, inexpensive, and practical solution that can dispose of huge volumes of this trash quickly. Less than 10% of all the plastic ever made has been recycled, in large part because it’s too costly to collect and sort. Plastic production, meanwhile, is projected to double within 20 years.
“Thinking that we recycle waste only and that we should avoid plastic waste, then you can quote me on this: People believe in fairy tales,” Pieters said.
Unilever would not comment specifically on the Indonesia project. It said in an email that in situations where recycling isn’t feasible, it would explore “energy recovery initiatives.” That’s industry parlance for burning plastic as fuel.
Coca-Cola, Unilever, Colgate, and Nestle did not respond to questions about the environmental and health impacts of burning plastic in cement kilns. The companies said they invest in various initiatives to reduce waste, including boosting recycled content in their packaging and making refillable containers.
Cemex, SBI, Republic Cement and Holcim’s Geocycle unit told Reuters their partnerships with consumer goods firms were aimed at addressing the global waste crisis and reducing their dependence on traditional fossil fuels.
Exactly how much plastic waste is being burned in cement kilns globally isn’t known. That’s because industry statistics typically lump it into a wider category called “alternative fuel” that comprises other garbage, such as scrap wood, old vehicle tires and clothing.
The use of alternative fuel has risen steadily in recent decades and already is the dominant energy source for the cement industry in some European countries. There’s no question the amount of plastic within that category has increased and will keep climbing given a worldwide explosion of plastic waste, according to 20 cement industry players interviewed for this report, including company executives, engineers and analysts. Reuters also reviewed data from cement associations, individual countries and analysts that confirmed this trend.
For example, Geocycle currently uses 2 million tonnes of plastic waste a year as alternative fuel at Holcim plants worldwide, according to Geocycle CEO Pieters, who said the company intends to increase this to 11 million tonnes by 2040, including through more partnerships with consumer goods companies.
Pieters said the cement industry has the capacity to burn all the plastic waste the world currently produces. The United Nations Environment Programme estimates that figure to be 300 million tonnes annually. That dwarfs the world’s plastic recycling capacity, estimated to be 46 million tonnes a year, according to a 2018 estimate by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a global policy forum.
Plastic pollution, meanwhile, is bedeviling communities whose landfills are reaching capacity and despoiling the Earth’s wild places. Plastic garbage flowing into the oceans is due to triple to 29 million tonnes a year by 2040, according to a study published last year by the Pew Charitable Trusts. This detritus is endangering wildlife and contaminating the seafood humans consume.
“The cement industry is definitely a solution,” Geocycle’s Pieters said.
Consumer goods giants are turning to cement firms for help in reducing plastic litter as other initiatives stumble. Reuters reported in July that a set of new “advanced” plastic recycling technologies promoted by big brands and the plastic industry had suffered major setbacks across the world.
In Europe, refuse now makes up roughly half the fuel used by the cement industry. In Germany, the bloc’s biggest producer, the ratio is 70%, according to 2019 data from the Global Cement & Concrete Association (GCCA), a London-based trade organization. The United States uses 15% alternative fuel in its kilns, according to the Portland Cement Association, a U.S. industry group. Spokesperson Mike Zande said its members have the capacity to catch up with Europe.
While cost-cutting remains the primary driver, the industry in recent years has begun touting its garbage fuel as a way to reduce the “societal problem” of plastic waste, said Ian Riley, CEO of the London-based World Cement Association (WCA), which represents producers in developing countries.
So it was logical that cement makers would team up with consumer goods companies, the largest source of single-use plastic packaging, in the recent partnerships to burn discarded plastic in their kilns.
In emerging markets, big brands sell a slew of food and hygiene products packaged in plastic sachets, typically single-serving portions tailored to the budgets of poor households. Billions of these flexible pouches are sold each year. Sachets are nearly impossible to recycle because they’re made of layers of different materials laminated together, usually plastic and aluminum, that are difficult to separate.
Indonesia, an archipelago of more than 270 million people, is the second-largest contributor to ocean plastic pollution behind China, partly due to its widespread use of sachets, according to a 2015 study published in the journal Science. Plastic garbage can be seen everywhere around Jakarta, the sprawling capital of more than 10 million people. It clogs storm drains, litters its teaming slums and mars its shoreline.
Developing countries have generally welcomed assistance with waste management. Thus Indonesia was a natural location for Unilever’s waste-fuel venture with cement maker SBI and the local Jakarta government. At last year’s launch, Andono Warih, head of Jakarta’s environment service, praised the initiative and expressed hope that it would spark other such collaborations.
The project uses plastic that’s already been buried in the region’s Bantar Gebang landfill, one of the largest dumps in Asia. Waste excavated by earth-moving equipment is transported to a warehouse at the landfill site. There, it is shredded, sieved and dried into a brown mix resembling manure. That material, known as Refuse Derived Fuel (RDF), is then fed into the kiln at an SBI cement plant in Narogong, just outside Jakarta.
SBI currently uses 20% RDF at that plant, a figure that could increase to 35%, according to Ita Sadono, SBI’s business development manager. The operation still relies primarily on coal, she said, but she contends RDF is “significantly helping to reduce plastic waste.”
Unilever is helping to fund a second RDF project in Cilacap, an industrial region in Central Java, according to SBI and a 2020 sustainability report by Unilever’s local Indonesian unit. The two facilities could send 30,000 tonnes of plastic waste per year to SBI’s cement plants, according to a Reuters analysis of data provided by SBI.
Unilever did not respond to detailed questions about these projects. Sadono said in a text message that Reuters’ calculations were “OK,” without giving further details.