Converting plastic back into petroleum

By: 
November 04, 2010

What to do with the tons of plastic trash that pile up around the world has long been a problem with seemingly few solutions. Now, one Japanese entrepreneur has developed a way to turn plastic back into oil.

Plastic-to-plastic recycling is the optimum way to reuse plastic trash, but that method is fraught with problems of its own. You can’t commingle plastics, which means that once the plastic is collected (using big, gasoline-burning garbage trucks in most cities where central recycling is done), it must be taken to the sorter, where dozens of people separate the plastic trash by hand.

Over the past couple of decades, inventors have tried things such as automated sorting using layers of heaters that attract the various types of plastic with different melt temperatures. While an interesting idea, it was never feasible on a commercial basis. And when it comes to tons of plastic trash, sorting isn’t cost effective. People have suggested burning it for energy since plastic contains about the same BTUs as coal, but that idea hasn’t received rave acceptance, either. So is there an answer?

Entrepreneur Akinori Ito, founder of Blest Corp. in Japan, has developed a portable machine that takes plastic and converts it back into oil. After all, plastic comes from oil, so why can’t plastic go back to oil? That’s what Ito began thinking when he started considering the problem of the piles of plastic trash accumulating around the world.

He understands the value of plastic and what it has done for society in terms of lightweighting products from aircraft to cars, and the disposability of single-use items, which also lend themselves to being more sanitary. However, after the plastic becomes trash, is it valuable? Yes, he decided. “It’s made from oil so it wouldn’t be difficult to convert it back to oil,” he said in a video. And therein lies the real value of plastic trash.

Ito developed a small, portable tabletop machine that uses a tank into which he stuffs all types of plastic trash. The materials can be commingled because he is only extracting the usable “gases” and oils. Using heat and pressure, the machine can take this commingled plastic trash and in a few hours produce unrefined oil, composed of kerosene, diesel, gasoline, and heavy oils. A pipe running from the heating machine to a container of tap water puts the resulting gas through a filter and into the water, which breaks it down into H2O and CO2, so there isn’t really any smell and no release of CO2 into the atmosphere. “If we turn our plastic garbage back into oil, we reduce the amount of CO2,” he notes.

The unrefined oil can be immediately used for industrial machinery, incinerators, and for other uses where refined gas is not required for operation. The machine is capable of turning 1 kg of plastic into 1 liter of oil, using 1 kW of electricity at a cost of about $0.20.
Ito’s goal is to change the way people think about plastic trash. “This is not garbage, this is oil, so when people understand that they don’t throw it away,” he says in the video. He wants to get households involved in collecting plastic trash from their neighborhoods and making the oil for use in their everyday life such as in generators that many in developing countries need for power. Blest also makes machines to refine the oil.

“People look at plastic trash and say, ‘It’s a waste, isn’t it?’” says Ito. “No, it’s a treasure,” he adds. Clare Goldsberry

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