Human Achievement of the Day: Turning Plastic Waste Back into Oil

This “human achievement of the day” is a true example of why we at CEI and many others around the world choose to celebrate the ingenuity expressed when individuals can exploit resources. Apart from increasing personal wealth and improving the quality of life for humans around the globe, it is technology, not “conservation,” that results in more “environmentally friendly” technologies. The machine that turns plastic waste into oil is just one example of this.

The miracle of plastics: The invention of plastic is arguable one of the most important contributions to the improving quality of human life. Plastics are used in medicine, aeronautics, travel, construction, and electronics. In fact, if it wasn’t for plastic materials, one wonders if we’d have the satellites used to track the changes in Earth’s environment.

The problem with plastic: While plastics make much of modern human life possible, there are some who see the downsides of plastics. Making these synthetic materials accounts for 7 percent of the world’s annual petroleum usage, which increases demand and the price of oil. At the same time, disposing of plastic is environmentally tricky: it takes a while for plastics to biodegrade naturally — some say it takes between 500 and 1,000 years — and there is a fear that these materials will  fill our oceans and landfills. Several cities have banned or taxed the use of plastic bags, which some believe are polluting rivers, streams, and oceans.

Burning plastic is also not a very environmentally friendly way to dispose of the material, as it releases large amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere.

Even recycling plastic comes with hazards, since you can’t commingle different types of plastic: they must be collected by trucks and sorted by hand at the recycling facility.

An inventive solution: While using less plastic is one way to reduce plastic-waste, Akinori Ito, CEO of the Japanese company Blest, has a better idea: turn it back into petroleum. Blest’s machines come in a variety of sizes for use, not only by commercial facilities, but at home.

The portable tabletop device uses a tank into which all types of plastic can be commingled, since it only extracts 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.

One kilogram of plastic waste produces almost a liter of oil and uses about 1 kilowatt of electricity at a cost of about $0.20. The unrefined oil can be immediately used for industrial machinery, incinerators, and for other uses where refined gas is not required for operation. 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…The home is the oil field of the future.”