This Jordanian recycling initiative is turning plastic waste into fuel
Akram Madanat exudes kindness and youthful energy. At nearly 70, this Jordanian entrepreneur is on a mission to clean nature and create jobs in his native Karak governorate, a region plagued by high unemployment.
“A lot of people tell me, when you are this age it’s better to go around the world and see the world, rather than starting a business,” Madanat told The New Arab, laughing heartily. “Maybe they are right, maybe it’s too late.”
After a long career as an industrial chemist in the Gulf, Madanat retired in 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 across the globe over the last decades. The kingdom has been engulfed by a sweeping tide of single-use plastic – flimsy shisha tubes, discardable tablecloths, individual portions of water sold in sealed plastic cups"
With his business partner, pharmacist Bassel Burgan, Madanat established two facilities in central Jordan. The first employs five staff and recycles paper waste into egg trays. The second, which is still being developed, will generate cheap fuel from plastic waste through “pyrolysis,” a heat-based process.
Turning waste into fuel
The idea to create fuel from plastic came as Madanat and Burgan tried to establish their first factory.
“We first thought about recycling paper to produce egg trays, which used to be produced in Jordan around thirty years ago but are now mostly imported,” Madanat said. “When we tried to understand why other manufacturers had left Jordan, we came across three main factors: the high cost of electricity, water, and fuel.”
Born in Karak, one of Jordan’s most marginalised governorates, Madanat is deeply concerned about the industrial decline in the region. “We are worried about what’s happening in Jordan and very interested in keeping the environment clean as much as possible,” Madanat said. “At the same time, we are looking to offer jobs in low-income areas in Jordan.”
To lower their own operational costs, the two entrepreneurs looked into producing their own fuel thanks to a thermal process, pyrolysis. Pyrolysis units generally consist of a closed chamber in which plastic is heated (typically to around 400 degrees Celsius) until it breaks down into various gases.
The gases then move through pipes to other chambers, liquefying as they cool down into different substances. The process generates a high proportion of diesel fuel (70 to 80%) and some leftover gases that can then be redirected to heat the raw plastic.
“We are the only project in the Middle East that processes plastic in this way,” Madanat said, proudly holding out a small bottle filled with a brownish liquid. Once opened, the bottle releases an unmistakable scent, reminiscent of petrol stations.
Although it cannot be put as such in a car engine, 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 decrease their costs and compete with imported products.
A recycling crisis
The other aim of the project is to tackle Jordan’s rampant plastic pollution, aggravated by a structural lack of recycling options.
Jordanians are not immune to the plastic frenzy that has swept across the globe over the last decades. The kingdom has been engulfed by a sweeping tide of single-use plastic – flimsy shisha tubes, discardable tablecloths, and individual portions of water sold in sealed plastic cups.
But the country’s waste infrastructure cannot keep up. Plastic is everywhere: strewn along the side of the road, layered into the freshly ploughed soil of fields, floating around in riverbeds. Even the most remote corners of Jordan are dotted with decaying bags and abandoned water bottles.
“Unfortunately, waste [in Jordan] is still being managed without any proper sorting,” Abdallah Ta’ani, who heads the Jordanian subsidiary of LDK Consultants - an environmental consulting firm working closely with local authorities on the management of solid waste - told The New Arab.
“There have been several initiatives from development agencies and municipalities for waste sorting, but the impact has been very small so far,” Ta’ani regretted. Less 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 Jordan’s solid waste is recycled.
Most sorting and recycling is actually done through the informal sector - mostly by waste pickers, who collect valuable waste in the streets and landfills and then sell it to brokers and scrapyards to be re-purposed or exported. But due to high energy costs and water scarcity, which make recycling expensive, private actors have 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, a lack of investments in suitable technology, and to plastic’s low value-to-weight ratio, which does not incentivize pickers to collect it.
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 vegetable 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 regretted. “Plastic mulch” consists of thin plastic sheets used to cover the soil around crops. In the 1990s, it became increasingly popular among farmers in the Jordan Valley as a way to limit water evaporation and regulate growing conditions around crops.
Plastic mulch is widely used to shield crops from scorching heat or frost, preserve soil moisture, and control weeds. But if not removed properly, mulch degrades in 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 components into the surrounding soil and groundwater.
Rather than dumping it in landfills or burning it in the open, Madanat wants to offer farmers the opportunity to recycle leftover mulch. He plans to purchase it for 100 to 150 JOD (141 to 211 USD) per ton, to enable farmers to recover some of their costs.
Bought around the start of the Covid-19 pandemic with funding from MEDA, a Canadian non-profit, Karak Star’s pyrolysis unit was only installed a year and a half later.
“I had to install the plant by myself because we couldn’t bring any specialists from China, where we bought the plant,” Madanat said.
Since the first test run around a year ago, he has been fine-tuning the unit and hopes to soon launch production on a larger scale. Based on the assumption that one ton of raw material will yield 80% of its mass in diesel, Madanat aims to produce 3.5 to 4 tons of fuel per day.
But Ta’ani feels this is ambitious. Greenhouse residues and mulch present the advantage of being already sorted and relatively clean, unlike municipal waste. But “as a result of the rising price of plastic and reduced taxes on exports, there are now more and more people collecting [used plastic mulch].”
Hence, gathering enough plastic to run the plant at full capacity might be challenging. Another issue is the high seasonality of the raw material - plastic mulch is usually discarded only at the end of the agricultural season, making the supply unstable.
So far, municipalities and development agencies have been reluctant to develop pyrolysis in Jordan due to environmental drawbacks compared to other methods, like shredding and pelletization (a technique that turns plastic scraps into reusable raw material). “It’s not the most environmentally friendly way to recycle plastic,” Ta’ani said. “You will definitely release some gases into the atmosphere, unlike in other processes.”
Still, Karak Star’s initiative is a welcome addition to the waste management landscape in Jordan - one that could open new avenues for plastic recycling by private actors, and pave the way for other projects. “[Pyrolysis] is one of the best methods to manage plastic waste because even the plastic that is expensive to recycle can be processed,” Ta’ani said enthusiastically. “It’s very efficient.”
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