Can You Convert Plastic to Oil?
When the first piece of plastic was produced in 1907 to be used as an insulator, no one could really foresee the scale of the global plastic production that would ensue a mere 100 years later. The US now produces about 286 pounds of plastic waste per person per year and is widely considered one of the biggest pollutants on earth.
Scientists have long been on the lookout for a truly effective and environmentally responsible method to dispose of plastic. One such nascent method might be converting plastic to crude oil – another form of energy that can later be reused. How can this possibly work?
How Plastic Waste is Disposed
Most of us don’t even realize the level of “addiction” of the developed world to plastic. We consume it in virtually everything. You wake up in the morning, turn off the alarm clock, use your toothbrush and hairbrush, start the coffee maker, stretch out on your yoga mat—all of these are made of plastic.
It would be very difficult to eliminate plastic from our modern environment completely, so at least in the short term, we have to live with it. However, the rate at which we produce plastic waste creates a sizeable environmental problem, not only for our oceans, animals, and landfills but also for the rest of the world. There are four main ways of disposing of plastic today:
According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), about 55 percent of all garbage in the U.S. is buried in landfills, more than 139 million tons. Approximately 19.2% are plastic items, which can take up to 1,000 years to decompose in landfills. This is particularly alarming because the U.S. landfills are quickly filling up, emitting both methane and carbon dioxide in the process.
Unfortunately, plastic degrades each time it is recycled – and eventually, after about two or three cycles, it will have to make its way to the trash can. It is also quite expensive – It costs approximately $4,000 to recycle one ton of plastic bags and there are only limited types that can be recycled.
About 14% of discarded plastic goes through a high-temperature combustion process, called incarceration in municipal facilities. Burning plastic creates harmful dioxins and if incinerators are inefficient, these leak into the environment, which seems very counterproductive to the government efforts to reduce CO2 emissions.
Finally, dumping plastic waste in different areas around the globe is perhaps the most concerning method, given its sheer volume. Up until 2017, the U.S. exported 1.5 million metric tons of plastic waste to countries with poor waste management. Eventually, China decided to quickly shut its doors to our unwanted product. However, despite the Chinese ban, America is still shipping more than 1m tons a year of its plastic waste overseas, much of it to places that are already virtually drowning in it.
How to Turn Plastic Into Oil?
We appear to be stuck in an unsolvable situation – eliminating plastic from our lives appears impossible while existing methods of disposing of it have proven costly, energy inefficient, or equally as harmful to the environment as the plastic itself.
Maybe there is a new green solution. Scientists discovered that by heating the plastic waste, we can convert it back to crude oil – the technology called pyrolysis of plastics.
How is it possible? Plastics are hydrocarbons, containing a high level of stored energy content that can be converted back into liquid fuel. By heating up a reactor filled with water for 380–500°C for up to five hours and at high pressures, water breaks down the plastic and converts it back into its original form.
The researchers were able to transform 91% of the plastic using this process and with less energy and emissions than incinerating or recycling it – making it relatively green. The scientists are now on the chase for finding the right catalyst for the process – making it more efficient and economically valuable.
Is Converting Plastic to Fuel a Form of Recycling?
Recycling, in the traditional sense of the world, is the process of converting discarded products into new materials and objects. This is good for the environment because it preserves our planet’s natural sources and conserves energy used to produce materials.
As oil is a finite natural resource, reusing the oil from plastic helps the world preserve the natural resource and reduce its overall consumption.
What Are the Environmental Benefits of Converting Plastic to Oil?
The process of pyrolysis of plastic is proving to deliver significant energy and environmental benefits. These include reductions of up to 14% in greenhouse gas emissions, up to 58% in water consumption, and up to 96% in traditional energy use when compared to conventional crude oil.
If this process sounds complex and more like something that would be produced in giant laboratories using sophisticated technology, you might be surprised. A Japanese inventor Akinori Ito has created a machine to convert plastic to oil at home.
The machine is sold by Ito’s Blest Corporation and is praised for its efficiency: It can convert a kilogram of plastic waste into one liter of oil using only a kilowatt-hour of electricity. The cost of the product is currently $10,000, but the hope is that as demand and production rise, the price will fall.
Below are answers to some of the questions you might have about turning plastic back into oil.
How do you turn diesel into plastic waste?
Conversion of plastic to oil is possible thanks to a process called pyrolysis, which utilizes high water temperatures and high reactor pressures to break down the plastic and convert it into fuels. This technology carries significant environmental benefits, such as the reduction of CO2 emissions, production of recycled fuels, and in some cases, reducing the U.S. dependency on oil imports.
How can plastic be turned back into oil?
Plastic products are made from crude oil and after they are discarded in the form of plastic waste, they can be converted back to their original form through a process called pyrolysis. The plastic is heated to over 400°C, a process that breaks down the long-chain molecules thus producing synthetic crude oil. This relatively new technology solves two problems at the same time – dealing with waste and making high-quality energy that doesn’t require treatment.