What Happens to the Plastic Waste CleanHub Collects?

By Beth Howell on April 9, 2024
What Happens to the Plastic Waste CleanHub Collects?
Beth Howell
Beth Howell

Beth has been writing about the environment and climate change for over four years now – with her work being featured in publications such as The BBC, Forbes, The Express, Greenpeace, and in multiple academic journals.

At CleanHub, it’s our mission to make sure no plastic ends up in our oceans. 

So far, we’ve collected over 7,000,000 kilograms (kg) of plastic — primarily through household waste collections — and we plan on building on this success in the coming years. 

Unlike many other waste collection services around the world, we collect non-recyclable materials as well as recyclable ones, which are usually discarded or burned in many countries.

This often raises one key question: What do we do with the waste once it's collected? Well, the recyclable items are sent to a local recycling plant to be fed back into the circular economy, and the non-recyclable items are turned into alternative fuel. 

It’s a complex process — but don’t worry, we’ll explain everything you need to know in this article, including how we turn plastic into fuel, what other options are out there, and why landfill simply isn’t an option for us. 


What’s on this page?

01 | Understanding the plastic we work with
02 | What we do with the plastic waste we collect
03 | Why choose plastic as an alternative fuel?
04 | What we do with the fuel created from co-processing
05 | Other solutions we’re considering
06 | Why landfill disposal is not an option for us
07| FAQs


Understanding the plastic we work with

Before we dive into the ins and outs of our process, let’s introduce you to the materials we work with. 

As well as collecting recyclable materials, a large portion of the plastic collected through CleanHub is non-recyclable. We focus most of our efforts on this material because it’s estimated that roughly 80% of all plastic that enters the oceans is multi-layer or flexible plastics — both of which aren’t recyclable, as there currently lacks the infrastructure to repurpose them. 

By collecting this waste, we’re helping local communities, wildlife, and the environment from being smothered in plastic. This is especially true in the vulnerable regions we work in, including Indonesia, India, and Tanzania.



What we do with the plastic waste we collect

The recyclable items that we collect are sent to a local recycling facility, where they can be processed and fed back into the circular economy.

Since we can’t do this with non-recyclable material, one of the most accessible ways to repurpose it is to turn it into an alternative fuel source. We do this through a method called ‘co-processing’.

This involves using solid waste as an energy source — instead of raw materials or fossil fuels — to power industrial facilities.

Co-processing plants do this by burning plastic waste in a cement kiln at incredibly high temperatures, between 2,800 ºF and 2,550 ºF (1,250 ºC and 1,450 ºC). This allows the waste to burn quickly, taking an average of 4-5 seconds to fully combust.

Unlike regular incineration, co-processing is an oxygen-rich method, which encourages the complete combustion of plastic waste without leaving any ash behind. 

This process also has a steady flow of alkaline materials in it, neutralizing any potential acidic gasses and reducing the risk of air pollution, according to Ton to Ton.

What’s the difference between co-processing and incineration?

The key difference between co-processing and incineration is that one utilizes leftover energy sources, while the other doesn’t. Co-processing converts waste into fuel, whereas incineration reduces waste to ash, but doesn’t utilize this in any way.

This makes co-processing much more environmentally friendly — especially if the fuel created is used in a carbon-heavy industry. 


Why choose co-processing for plastic waste?

There are a number of benefits to using the co-processing method as a way to utilize non-recyclable waste. We’ve listed some of the major benefits in the list below:

  • Reduces emissions in certain industries — A recent study found that the co-processing method can reduce 53 kg of carbon dioxide (CO2) per ton of cement produced, whilst also extending the expiration date for landfills by 7.55 years. However, the overall environmental impact of co-processing depends on the specific technology used, the type of plastic feedstock, and the energy efficiency of the conversion process
  • Provides economic benefits — The European Union suggests that investing in co-processing will avoid about €12 billion of public funds to dedicated waste incineration plants. This method is also estimated to be about five to ten times cheaper than conventional forms of incineration
  • Safe and clean process — Compared to other incineration methods, co-processing is a clean and safe process. The temperature profiles are constantly monitored and managed to avoid the formation of dioxins and furans (toxic compounds that can be harmful to human health)
  • Avoids using raw materials — By using the co-processing method, we can utilize existing resources, reduce our dependence on raw materials, and move towards a more circular economy

Despite these benefits, we won’t call this a green technology, since plastic is made from oil — but it’s the best available option we have in all regions to reduce plastic pollution and avoid dumping more waste in landfills. 

As soon as we see a way to treat non-recyclable waste in a greener way, we’ll make the switch. 


What we do with the fuel created from co-processing

The fuel that’s generated from the plastic we collect goes towards the cement industry — yes, the cement industry responsible for 7-8% of global carbon emissions. 

The reason? Well, cement makers around the world have pledged to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by up to a quarter by 2030 — and we want to help them get there. 

Not only will this benefit the cement industry, but it’ll also reduce global emissions. According to the European Union, increasing the rate of co-processing waste in the EU cement industry to 60% will avoid 26 million tons of CO2 emissions.

This industry is notoriously difficult to make greener for two key reasons:

  • It needs temperatures of between 2,280 ºF and 3,630 ºF (1,250 °C–2,000 °C) to melt the limestone it works with. This process is responsible for around 50% of the cement industry’s carbon emissions 
  • These extreme temperatures can only currently be achieved by burning fossil fuels, such as coal and lignite, which are responsible for around 40% of a cement plant’s carbon emissions. The other 10% comes from sourcing raw materials

By switching from carbon-intensive raw materials to fuel created by co-processing, we can help cement producers reduce 53 kg of carbon dioxide (CO2) per ton of cement produced.

It’s not a silver bullet, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction. And with new solar technology emerging, there’s hope that this polluting industry will one day be fully renewable. 


A bird's eye view of a landfill surrounded by padi fields and trees


Other solutions we’re considering

We want to make sure we’re using the best methods possible for both the planet and local communities

That means we’re constantly on the lookout for other ways to utilize non-recyclable plastic waste, whilst also considering existing infrastructure.

Here are the main two options we’re keeping our eye on.

Chemical recycling

This process involves changing the chemical structure of a waste item, turning it back into substances that can be used as raw materials for the manufacturing of plastics or other products. 

We’re continuing to observe developments in the chemical recycling industry. However, most of the solutions in the field still focus on turning plastic into fuels, such as diesel or kerosene. We’re hoping this approach will one day be able to turn old plastic back into a usable plastic product again.

And as chemical recycling is a very energy-intensive process, it’s more environmentally friendly to stick with the co-processing route — for now. 

Using plastics as construction material

We’re also keeping an eye on developments in how experts are integrating plastics into construction materials, such as pavement tiles or bricks. 

Although we applaud the innovative thinking behind this, we’re skeptical about this solution for two key reasons: 

  • At the moment, it’s unclear whether the plastic integrated into these structures will release harmful chemicals inside the building
  • These materials still won’t be recyclable at the end of their lifecycle, and will likely end up in landfill once the structure deteriorates 


Why landfill disposal is not an option for us

Landfills are not a sustainable solution to the plastic waste crisis. 

These trash-filled areas aim to reduce the amount of waste that makes it into the open environment, prevent disease transmission, and keep communities clean. However, the more we continue to rely on landfills, the worse off our planet will become. 

In fact, without the right environmental protection, landfills leak a huge amount of waste into nature. This is the prime reason why we need non-recyclable waste to be co-processed, rather than sent to landfill. 

Here are a handful of other reasons why landfills are simply not an option for us. 

Increased emissions

As organic mass in a landfill begins to decompose, it releases methane gas — a greenhouse gas that is 80 times more harmful to the planet than CO2, making it one of the main contributors to climate change

Evidence also suggests that once plastic is exposed to UV light, it begins emitting greenhouse gasses like methane and ethylene, and this process doesn’t ever stop. 

If landfills are not covered, the plastics sitting there will continue emitting these gasses — and if they are covered, they still run the risk of leaking chemicals into the soil. 

Health risks to locals

The leachate (harmful fluid created from the trash) trickles into the groundwater and poisons it with heavy metals and other pollutants. This means people who live near landfills have a higher risk of developing certain health problems. 

For example, a study in New York found that children born to families that lived within a mile of a hazardous waste landfill site have a 12% increased risk of congenital malformations (birth defects).

On top of this, minority and low-income areas are more likely to find themselves living next to landfills and hazardous waste sites. 

Harmful for wildlife

Natural habitats and wild spaces are often destroyed to make way for new landfill sites. And since the average landfill site takes up around 600 acres, they disturb a lot of wildlife.

As well as destroying habitats to make room for landfills, the sites themselves also have a detrimental impact on any animals in the area. Leaked leachate will often contaminate nearby water sources, which can cause severe health implications — or even death — when consumed by animals.

Spontaneous fires

It’s not uncommon for landfills to spontaneously break out into fires, which can happen on both a surface level and an underground level — with the latter being much more challenging to put out. 

An increase in the oxygen content of the landfill is the most common cause of underground landfill fires, as it increases bacterial activity and raises temperatures. These hot spots can then come into contact with pockets of methane gas and result in a fire.



When it comes to the plastic waste crisis, innovation needs to happen both upstream and downstream — in the packaging industry but also in the waste management industry. 

As well as reducing the amount of plastic we consume as a society, we need to clean up the mess we’ve already created around the world. 

One of the key ways we can do that is by continuing to build a vast network of waste collection projects — and that’s exactly what we’re doing at CleanHub.



How does CleanHub collect plastic?

The majority of our plastic recovery efforts come from household collection. However, we also explore other methods, including beach cleanups, utilizing existing systems, empowering micro-entrepreneurs, and investing in collection technology in rivers.

You can learn more about this on our page: How Does CleanHub Collect Plastic Waste?

What does CleanHub do with the recyclable waste that is collected?

Although we focus our efforts on collecting non-recyclable waste, we sometimes carry out projects that branch out to recyclable waste too, such as beach cleanups. 

In these situations, we allow the hubs that we partner with to sell the material, and they get to keep the profits. 

How does CleanHub track its plastic collection?

Our tracking process will change slightly, depending on the collection methods used. When it comes to household collection, our crew scans a QR code on the door, which opens our app and registers their specific location.

Once the homeowner hands over the waste, the collectors put it on a small scale and a crew member takes a picture. Along with the bag’s image, we resolved the geo-location to make sure the waste was collected where it was supposed to be collected. 

The crew also registers the weight displayed on the scale, and we cross-check these values. 

You can learn more about this process, and what happens after, on our page: How Does CleanHub’s Tracking Software Work?

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