James Massola, Jakarta – The tiny nation of Timor-Leste hopes to become the world's first "plastic neutral" country, after signing a deal to create a new chemical recycling plant with Australian technology.
The ground-breaking Catalytic Hydrothermal Reactor (or Cat-HTR) plant, which will cost about $57.7 million to build if and when funding is secured, breaks down plastic waste into tiny pieces and allows it to be used again to create new plastics, hard waxes or fuels.
Cat-HTR plants are already being constructed on the NSW Central Coast, in the UK, and in Canada too.
The plants can handle tens of thousands of tonnes of plastic waste and offer a potential solution to the global recycling crisis created by China's decision to stop accepting plastic waste for recycling.
Crucially, the Cat-HTR plants can even recycle so-called "end of life" plastics, which typically end up in landfill – or the planet's oceans and rivers. An estimated 8 million tonnes of plastic ends up in the ocean each year, and tens of millions more in land fill.
University of Sydney Professor Thomas Maschmeyer, the co-inventor of the technology, said it would be given to Timor-Leste for free because the idea of a plastic neutral country was "a beacon on the hill" idea.
"It works like a rice cooker, but continuously. You put stuff in at high pressure and temperatures, and that induces radical depolymerisation – that means the water and the heat [in the CAT-HTR plant] acts like a pair of scissors that cuts the plastic into tiny pieces," professor Maschmeyer said.
"Those pieces are liquid or gaseous, depending on how tiny we cut them. Then we can use other existing processes to make conventional products – plastics, waxes, lubrication oils, solvents.
"What we want to do conceptually is move from plastic being a waste to being a resource [which has economic value]. Once it's a resource, people will treat it differently. We want the problem [of plastic waste] to essentially self-regulate."
Maschmeyer had no doubt his technology also offered a solution to the question of what to do with the plastic waste being produced by Australian households.
"This is the solution to the recycling crisis in Australia. We are being inundated with people wanting to buy... plants. We need to get the first couple up and running, then the project... Then the floodgates open. It's first of its kind technology," he said.
Timor-Leste Environment Secretary Demetrio do Amaral de Carvalho, who signed the deal on Friday, has said the plan is for a national non-profit entity called RESPECT to operate the plant, buy plastic waste from community groups such as schools, and then sell the products created at a net profit.
"This is an exciting collaboration for us. Not only will it make a big difference in plastic waste reduction and reduce harm to our cherished marine life, but Timor-Leste can be an example to the rest of the world about what this technology can achieve and the benefits it will have for the planet," he said.
The plant would process about 20,000 tonnes of plastic waste each year, and potentially create about 17,000 tonnes of synthetic fuels. Discussions are already underway with the United Nations, government aid agencies and NGOs to fund the project.