Jordan recycling initiative turns plastic waste into fuel

Two Jordanian entrepreneurs want to clean up agricultural land and revive local industries in rural Jordan using pyrolysis, a process that turns plastic into fuel.

Akram Madanat exudes kindness and youthful energy. At almost 70 years old, this Jordanian entrepreneur is on a mission to clean up nature and create jobs in his native governorate of Karak, a region plagued by high unemployment.

“A lot of people tell me that at this age it’s better to go around the world and see the world, than to start a business,” Madanat said. The new Arabic, laughing heartily. “Maybe they’re right, maybe it’s too late.”

After a long career as an industrial chemist in the Gulf, Madanat retired to Jordan and launched “Karak Star”, one of the kingdom’s only recycling projects targeting plastics.

“Jordanians are not immune to the plastic frenzy that has swept the world in recent decades. The kingdom has been engulfed by a tide of single-use plastic – flimsy shisha tubes, disposable tablecloths, individual servings of ‘water sold in sealed plastic cups’

Together with its business partner, pharmacist Bassel Burgan, Madanat has established two facilities in central Jordan. The first employs five people and recycles waste paper into egg trays. The second, which is still under development, will generate cheap fuel from plastic waste through ‘pyrolysis’, a heat-based process.

Turning waste into fuel

The idea of ​​creating fuel from plastic came as Madanat and Burgan were trying to create their first factory.

Based in Karak Governorate, central Jordan, Karak Star’s pyrolysis unit turns plastic waste into fuel
[photo credit: Akram Madanat]

“We first thought of recycling paper to produce egg trays, which used to be produced in Jordan about 30 years ago but are now mostly imported,” Madanat said. “When we tried to understand why other manufacturers had left Jordan, we encountered three main factors: the high cost of electricity, water and fuel.”

Born in Karak, one of Jordan’s most marginalized governorates, Madanat is deeply concerned about the region’s industrial decline. “We are worried about what is happening in Jordan and very interested in keeping the environment clean as much as possible,” Madanat said. “At the same time, we seek to provide employment in low-income areas in Jordan.”

In order to reduce their own operating costs, the two entrepreneurs looked into producing their own fuel using a thermal process, pyrolysis. Pyrolysis units typically consist of an enclosed chamber in which plastic is heated (usually to around 400 degrees Celsius) until it breaks down into various gases.

The gases then travel through pipes to other chambers, liquefying as they cool into different substances. The process generates a high proportion of diesel fuel (70-80%) and some waste gases which can then be redirected to heat the raw plastic.

Fuel produced at the Karak Star pyrolysis unit [photo credit: Lyse Mauvais]

“We are the only project in the Middle East that treats plastic in this way,” Madanat said, proudly holding a small bottle filled with a brownish liquid. Once opened, the bottle releases an unmistakable fragrance, reminiscent of gas stations.

Although it cannot be put into a car engine as is, this diesel can easily be used for industrial purposes. Through this initiative, the two partners hope to help other local industries by giving them access to cheaper fuel, which would help them reduce their costs and compete with imported products.

A recycling crisis

The other goal of the project is to tackle endemic plastic pollution in Jordan, compounded by a structural lack of recycling options.

Jordanians are not immune to the plastic frenzy that has swept the world in recent decades. The kingdom has been engulfed by a wave of single-use plastic – flimsy shisha tubes, disposable tablecloths and individual servings of water sold in sealed plastic cups.

But the country’s waste infrastructure cannot keep up. Plastic is everywhere: strewn along the roadside, layered in the freshly plowed soil of fields, floating in riverbeds. Even the most remote corners of Jordan are littered with rotting bags and abandoned water bottles.

Most of the beautiful gorges that flow into the Dead Sea (known locally as wadis) are littered with rubbish [photo credit: Lyse Mauvais]

“Unfortunately, the waste [in Jordan] is still managed without any proper sorting,” Abdallah Ta’ani, who heads the Jordanian branch of LDK Consultants – an environmental consultancy working closely with local authorities on solid waste management, told The New Arab.

“There have been several initiatives by development agencies and municipalities for waste sorting, but the impact has been very low so far,” Ta’ani said. Fewer than a dozen public sorting facilities are currently in operation across the country, and their capacity is very limited compared to Jordan’s growing population. Experts estimate that less than 10% of Jordanian solid waste is recycled.

Most sorting and recycling is actually done through the informal sector – mainly by waste pickers, who collect valuable waste from the streets and landfills and then sell it to brokers and scrapyards for disposal. reused or exported. But with high energy costs and water scarcity making recycling expensive, private players need to focus on the most valuable type of waste – like metal – to stay competitive.

“One thing that is almost never recycled is PET [a type of plastic widely used in textile and packaging]Ta’ani added. This is partly due to the greater complexity of recycling plastic, the lack of investment in appropriate technology and the low value-to-weight ratio of plastic, which discourages collectors from collecting it.

Fighting “plasticulture”

To fill this gap, Karak Star wants to target agricultural plastic waste from the Jordan Valley – the country’s food basket, which concentrates most of the plant production.

“Farmers in the Jordan Valley use huge amounts of plastic for mulch and greenhouses, and once the season is over, much of it is thrown away or left on the ground,” Madanat lamented. “Plastic mulch” consists of thin sheets of plastic used to cover the soil around crops. In the 1990s, it became increasingly popular among farmers in the Jordan Valley as a means of limiting water evaporation and regulating growing conditions around crops.

The greenhouses cover large swaths of the Jordan Valley, the kingdom’s agricultural heartland [photo credit; Lyse Mauvais]

Plastic mulch is widely used to protect crops from scorching heat or frost, preserve soil moisture and control weeds. But if not removed properly, the mulch degrades into the soil, altering its structure, its ability to retain moisture and living microorganisms. Mulch residue can also threaten human health, by releasing microplastics and carcinogenic compounds into the surrounding soil and groundwater.

Rather than throwing it in landfills or burning it in the open, Madanat wants to offer farmers the option of recycling leftover mulch. He plans to buy it for 100 to 150 JOD (141 to 211 USD) per tonne, to allow farmers to recover some of their costs.

Discarded plastic mulch used by Karak Star to generate fuel [photo credit: Akram Madanat]

Persistent Challenges

Purchased around the start of the Covid-19 pandemic with funding from MEDA, a Canadian non-profit organization, Karak Star’s pyrolysis unit was only installed a year and a half later.

“I had to set up the factory myself because we couldn’t bring in specialists from China, where we bought the factory,” Madanat said.

Since the first trial about a year ago, he has been fine-tuning the unit and hopes to launch larger-scale production soon. Assuming that one ton of raw material will produce 80% of its mass in diesel, Madanat aims to produce 3.5 to 4 tons of fuel per day.

But Ta’ani thinks it’s ambitious. Greenhouse waste and mulch have the advantage of being already sorted and relatively clean, unlike municipal waste. But “as a result of the rise in the price of plastic and the reduction in export taxes, there are now more and more people collecting [used plastic mulch].”

Therefore, collecting enough plastic to run the plant at full capacity can be difficult. Another problem is the strong seasonality of the raw material – the plastic mulch is usually only thrown away at the end of the agricultural season, which makes the supply unstable.

Until now, municipalities and development agencies have been reluctant to develop pyrolysis in Jordan due to environmental disadvantages compared to other methods, such as shredding and granulation (a technique that turns plastic waste into raw material first reusable). “It’s not the most environmentally friendly way to recycle plastic,” Ta’ani said. “You will definitely release gases into the atmosphere, unlike other processes.”

Still, Karak Star’s initiative is a welcome addition to Jordan’s waste management landscape – one that could open up new avenues for plastic recycling by private actors and pave the way for other projects. “[Pyrolysis] is one of the best methods of plastic waste management because even plastic that is expensive to recycle can be processed,” Ta’ani enthused. “It’s very effective.”

Lyse Mauvais is a freelance journalist based in Amman, Jordan. She covers environmental issues in the Middle East, with a focus on Syria and Jordan.

Follow her on Twitter: @lyse_mauvais

Bryce K. Locke