Two promising developments have been underway regarding plastics. The first is the sophisticated effort to remove plastic litter from the oceans.  The second is the promising technological ability to convert used plastic to energy. Success in these areas will mean a cleaner planet and a more efficient use of energy in our daily lives.

Imagine fueling our automobiles from hydrogen or diesel converted from plastic waste, or heating our homes from fuel similarly derived from plastic waste.  The more fuel from plastic means less fuel being extracted from underground and less plastic being deposed.

In fact, plastic to energy technologies are producing liquid petroleum including synthetic oil, and refined products like gasoline, diesel and kerosene for everything from heating homes, to running power tools and industrial equipment, to generating electricity.

The ubiquity of plastic usage in products has increased living standards globally, but also litters the oceans in massive and growing amounts.

The engineering and environmental firm, The Ocean Cleanup, based in the Netherlands, is developing advanced technologies to clean plastic from the oceans by exploiting ocean currents to capture plastic waste, starting in the eastern Pacific.  CFACT’s Adam Houser recently described this effort.

Plastic litter in the ocean is so pervasive because plastic products are literally everywhere in our daily lives. Since the 1940’s, annual plastic use globally increased from 2 million tons per year to 380 million tons.  Only about 7 percent of plastics are recycled, with the remainder ending up in landfills and oceans.

Professor Jack Buffington of the University of Denver, in his recently published book, Peak Plastic, acknowledged that the ubiquity of plastic use has been an economic blessing but is now a growing global environmental crisis.  By 2030, Buffington argues, the planet will have reached “peak plastic” such that the benefits of plastic use will be outweighed by its environmental costs.

The effort by The Ocean Cleanup is therefore timely and shows promise, but it’s unlikely for the immediate future to adequately clean the oceans from ongoing disposal of plastic waste, let alone what already is there.

A larger, more promising solution to the crisis of global oceanic plastic waste may be the developing technologies to convert used plastic to everyday energy use.  More discarded plastic being used to produce energy means less of it being dumped in the oceans.

A company named Plastic2Oil is converting used, “unwashed” plastic products to sulfur diesel fuel, which could increasingly substitute diesel production from petroleum.  The processor used by the company can produce one gallon of fuel from little more than eight pounds of plastic waste.

Another plastic conversion method being developed would dissolve the bonds of polyethylene plastic to create petroleum and other fuel.  By a process of removing and adding bonds between carbon and hydrogen atoms in polythene plastic, the plastic can be converted to liquid fuel for cars and manufacturing, according to research being conducted at the University of California at Irvine and the Shanghai Institute.

Even plastic bags, which have been banned in New York and other states, can be converted to “plastic crude oil” from the process of pyrolysis, which decomposes material at high temperatures.  In fact, it may not be long before a standard feature in homes will be a modest size machine that has been invented to convert plastic bags and other plastic waste for home energy use.

Plastic-to-energy technologies would provide a new way to manufacture traditional fuels for daily living from plastic products already in great abundance and use. The resultant reduced need of landfills and less ocean waste would be significant environmental benefits, and a “win-win” for the individual consumer and the planet as a whole.

Author

  • Peter Murphy, a CFACT analyst, has researched and advocated for a variety of policy issues, including education reform and fiscal policy. He previously wrote and edited The Chalkboard weblog for the New York Charter Schools Association, and has been published in numerous media outlets, including The Hill, New York Post and the Wall Street Journal.