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Carbon Recycling: Reduce, Remove, Reuse
Recycling is not a new concept, in fact, it is one that most Americans are very familiar with. Aluminum cans are broken down and recreated into new products, while clothing made with recycled plastic is a growing trend. But have you ever thought about how these products get made?
Over 6,000 everyday products—like your reusable water bottle, sunglasses, and even the road outside your home—are made using oil, gas and processes that create carbon dioxide (CO2). So what if we could reduce the nearly 8 billion tons of CO2 that come from these processes annually in addition to the CO2 that has been building up in our atmosphere and find a way to repurpose it?
Well, we can. Through a method called carbon utilization—or carbon reuse or recycling—we can capture emissions at their source or remove them directly from the atmosphere and use that same CO2 in proven processes to make goods that are integral to our society. How does it work?
Here are some ways we can reuse that carbon.
Our built environment
Each year, two billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions come from manufacturing cement, an integral ingredient in concrete which forms the basis of much of our infrastructure. Carbon dioxide can be chemically reacted to make minerals, which can then be used as aggregates (e.g., gravel or crushed stones), and captured CO2 can be used in the concrete curing process. This leads to higher-performing concrete with lower costs, and the potential to reduce the CO2 emissions from concrete manufacturing by an estimated 80 percent.
Captured CO2 can replace fossil fuels typically utilized in the process of creating polymers, which then go on to be used in a variety of different materials such as plastics, foams, and resins. The life cycle reduction of CO2 emissions depends on the product and the percentage of CO2 present in the final product, but could be up to 15 percent reduction for a product containing 20 percent CO2.
Some examples of consumer products include sunglasses made from polycarbonate manufactured with recycled CO2 and sneakers derived from ethanol made with captured CO2. The CO2 acts as replacement feedstock, rather than introducing new fossil fuels to create them.
Right now, the transportation sector is in one of the top three heavy CO2-emitting sectors alongside industry and power due to heavy reliance on fossil fuels. Low-carbon fuel represents one of the largest markets for CO2 utilization. Creating fuels like methanol, methane, and gasoline from CO2 may be particularly useful for difficult to decarbonize transportation industries like aviation and shipping where electrification is less feasible. This process can be done by combining CO2 with other chemicals like hydrogen and subsequent chemical processes, bringing down the process-induced emissions for alternative fuels.
The same products, fewer emissions
By trapping and reusing carbon dioxide, even sometimes right at the source of emissions, companies can lower the emissions associated with their production and manufacturing. It would also drastically reduce the amount of new fossil fuels that have to be introduced in the beginning of the process, in turn, cutting back on our reliance for fossil fuels. The reality is that we can’t completely stop relying on these processes: we’ll still need to build and repair our roads and transport our goods by air or sea. But what we can do in addition to behavioral changes that result in fewer or more target uses, is significantly reduce, remove, and reuse emissions when we can. This means we can build a more circular economy by lowering industrial and legacy emissions.
Learn more about how carbon reuse can play an integral part in global decarbonization.