Contributing Writer for Wake Up World
Rather than tossing your plastic garbage into a trash or recycling bin, imagine if you were able to easily, safely and economically convert it into usable fuel right from home. Although this may sound far-fetched, it’s very much a reality today. Developers at Blest in Japan took on the challange of our growing plastic waste problem and created the world’s smallest plastic-to-oil conversion system.
How it works
Using the converter is easy. The operator simply stuffs the canister with waste plastic (including styrofoam), closes the lid and turns on the machine. As heat is applied, the plastic begins to melt. Once the liquid boils, it passes through a tube at the top and down into a receptacle filled with tap water, which cools the liquid and turns it into oil. In this state, it’s ready to burn as heating oil.
The machine happily handles polyethylene, polystyrene and polypropylene plastic, but not PET bottles under the #1 polypropylene class. (See Resin Identification codes.)
You can also process it further by separating the oil into gasoline, kerosene and diesel. The fuel is then used to power cars, motor bikes, generators, stoves, lawn mowers — basically anything that needs gas to run. For every kilogram of plastic, the machine will make about 1L of oil. Using a single kilowatt for the conversion, you’re looking at about 20¢ worth of electricity to create a liter of useable oil. By converting plastic into oil, CO2 emmissions are reduced by 80% compared to conventional burning of plastic.
The company manufactures a variety of sizes and already has 60 up and running at farms, fisheries and factories in Japan, along with several abroad. “To make a machine that anyone can use is my dream,” said Akinori Ito, CEO of Blest. “The home is the oil field of the future.”
The company has taken the tabletop machine to Africa, the Philippines and the Marshall Islands to educate children about the fact that plastic isn’t waste — it’s oil that can be used as fuel. Additionally, Blest is showing how a trash problem can be solved in a lucrative way, while also spreading the Japanese idea of mottainai (waste is sad and regrettable).
“It is the educational aspect of this invention that Ito is more passionate about. On many occasions, he has taken the model on planes to Marshall Islands. There, he worked in conjunction with the schools and local government to educate people about the culture of recycling and the great value of useless plastic. Ito did it as a part of a project he took up a few years back. The program succeeded and it also offered a practical solution to get rid of plastics left by tourists. The oil manufactured was used for running boats and tourist buses,” writes Steve Austin in Making Oil from Plastic.
Ito believes educating school children and their parents about the concept is his most important work. He makes a special point in these presentations to emphasize that if we were to use oil only from plastic — rather than oilfields — we would drastically slash our CO2 pollution.
Should we be reducing plastic instead of recycling?
As exciting as the technology may be, many have voiced concerns about whether this method of recycling is simply placing a Band-Aid on a much larger problem — specifically, waste producing attitudes found in almost every corner of the planet.
About 7% of the world’s annual oil production is dedicated to the manufacture of plastic — an amount that exceeds the total oil consumption of the entire African continent. Keep in mind that a single plastic bottle takes around 1,000 years to completely breakdown. Recycling numbers are dismally low and waste management generally resorts to landfills and incineration to despose of plastic. Or it ends up in the ocean, polluting and killing the ecosystem.
Since recycling has failed to address the problem in any significant way, new technology like plastic to oil conversion appears to provide a workable solution, one that allows us to have our cake and eat it too — without utterly destroying the environment in the process.
However, a final question remains: what about pollution and toxic residue resulting from the conversion? Blest assures us that there are no toxic substances created and any remnant from the method can safely be disposed of with regular burnable garbage. Methane, ethane, propane and butane gases are released during conversion, but the machine is fitted with an off-gas filter that breaks everything down into harmless water and carbon.
As of 2010, the company sells a small model for around $9,500 US, but we can hope that in the future the price will fall and be accessible for the average consumer. At present, industrial applications with larger machines are in highest demand.
To learn more about turning plastic into oil, Ito demonstrates the process in the following video.
Plastic to Oil Fantastic
This video by United Nations University’s Our World Magazine is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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