The Environmental Protection Agency states
less than 9 percent of total plastic created in the United States was recycled in 2012. The rest of the discarded plastic ends up in landfills or strewn about the world.
However, there is a new technology capable of harnessing waste plastic and transforming it into energy. This technology might be the key to dealing with our growing global plastic crisis
and desire for energy independence. Yet, whether or not this new process is green or environmentally friendly is still up to debate.
The new technology uses a process called pyrolysis
. This process, when used with plastics, turns them into oil, gas or diesel fuel. Pyrolysis has been used in many industrial activities for decades, including the creation of charcoal, carbon fiber and biofuel. Yet, only in the last few decades have scientists and engineers began developing pyrolysis to create fossil fuels from plastics on an industrial scale.
Pyrolysis occurs when organic materials are heated to high temperatures in the absence of oxygen. Without oxygen present, the plastic is unable to burn. Burning is a challenge, because many plastics burn before they reach the required heat to break down larger molecules in the plastic that need to be removed.
To begin this process, the plastic is first cleaned and shredded. The plastic bits are then put into oxygen-free heating chambers and transformed into a goopy substance with a consistency of silly putty
. This semi-liquid plastic is vaporized
, which further breaks down the plastics into hydrocarbons – the building blocks of fossil fuels. An alternative way to describe this process is that the long string of hydrocarbon molecules, which make plastic, are broken back into the little pieces in which they began, oil.
The technological progression of pyrolysis
has allowed for higher quality fuels to be produced. Some factories are now capable of creating fuels ready to be placed directly into vehicles from the factory. With this development numerous companies, which we will hear about shortly, have begun processing waste plastic into fuel.
The EPA estimated
nearly 32 million tons of plastics were created in 2012 – its most recent yearly data. As mentioned, much of this plastic ends up as waste and is currently not recycled. This has lead numerous companies to push pyrolysis as a ‘second-best’ option – behind traditional recycling practices in which plastics are reformed into other plastic products.
It was estimated by researchers at Columbia University
in 2011 that the nearly 30 million tons of plastic that hypothetically fills U.S. landfills could be turned into 87 million barrels of oil. Furthermore, when broken down the fuel created has a lower sulfur
count than traditional fuels. One study conducted by the University of Dublin has shown that one plants plastic pyrolysis fuel produces 20 percent less emissions when compared to the fuels you would buy at a traditional gas station.
Companies from all over the world are attempting to harness the waste plastic. Although the type of fuel plastics produce may vary, the general process, mentioned above, is roughly the same. Plastic2Oil
is a United States based company in Niagara Falls, New York, that has been pushing boundaries in plastic pyrolysis. Founder John Bordynuik started working on this process in 2009, with a small laboratory desktop model. Within the timespan of three years, Plastic2Oil has expanded to the point where it is now able to process up to 4,000 lbs. of plastic per hour
! Bordynuik has claimed that nearly 90 percent of plastic broken down in his process is reclaimed into high quality fuel.
Another entrepreneur, CEO Michael Murray, of the technology company Cynar, has also been working on plastic pyrolysis. Based in Almeria in southern Spain, Cynar started producing fuel last year and can currently produce nearly 4,000 gallons of diesel fuel each day. Murray hopes this technology could eventually be used in countries where plastic is piling up and fossil fuels have to be imported. His company claims it can produce diesel fuel for $1.75 per gallon – a competitive price that could help countries develop resource independence.
Australia-based IGE, or Integrated Green Energy Ltd.
, produced its first batch of fuel this month
. IGE says its process produces no dangerous emissions and is self-powered. The company’s goal is to produce fuel from 200 tons of plastic per day by this time next year. At this level of production, IGE claims less than a ton of waste is produced in the form of silica, which is basically sand. Furthermore, IGE states that up to 95 percent of plastics it breaks down are non-recyclable in the traditional sense.
Can this process be considered recycling, “green” or environmentally friendly if the end product is a carbon fuel? Carson Maxted of the plastic trade journal Resource Recycling
isn’t sure. What he is sure of is that there is a plethora of un-recycled plastics the world over and that groups like IGE, Cynar and Plastic2Oil have developed a unique technology to deal with this waste. He also explains that much of the plastic going into these factories is dirty, low quality and mixed to the point that it could never be accepted into current recycling programs.
The argument for whether or not this technology constitutes recycling is nuanced. On one hand these companies are creating something of use from millions of tons of waste plastic. Yet, on the other hand these companies’ are creating fossil fuels one of the largest contributors of pollution
What do you think of turning plastic into fuels? Is this something to be applauded or be a cause of concern? Tell me your opinions at @ResfordRouzer on Twitter.