Turning Plastic Into Oil

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Photo By Benjamin Linh VU
From the Great Pacific garbage patch to the local landfill, the plastic that makes our lives so easy becomes a huge burden once we’re done using it.

From the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to the local landfill, the plastic that makes our lives so easy becomes a huge burden once we’re done using it. When hopeful news of a Japanese-designed plastic-to-oil converter surfaced in 2010, the internet rejoiced, but accounts of the Blest Machine’s actual use have been hard to find. Now, reports Julie Bélanger for Alternatives Journal(March-April 2013), at least one large recycling plant is using the machine.

At the urging of local advocates, P&M Recycling of Whitehorse, Yukon, successfully installed a Blest Machine in September, 2012. The facility now processes 240 kilograms of plastic each day (about 529 pounds), enough to heat 70 area homes. The machine cost a hefty $175,000 to buy and install, but P&M owner Pat McInroy estimates that it will save him up to $18,000 a year in heating and labor costs. Plus, he no longer has to ship used plastics to Vancouver, British Columbia, for processing.

While the Blest design doesn’t accommodate all plastics, it does take care of some of the peskiest. Namely, polypropylene and polystyrene—which you might know better as those difficult-to-recycle yogurt containers and Styrofoam. It can also handle polyethylene, used for plastic classes 2 (opaque bottles) and 4 (plastic bags).

How does the Blest Machine work? Crushed plastic chips are pushed through two heated chambers, bringing the plastic to 400 degrees Celsius (752 degrees Fahrenheit). At that point it vaporizes, leaving behind a residue of carbon char. The gas is then cooled in a condenser, changing to its liquid state: oil. Any remaining carbon dioxide and steam are filtered before being released. Using electric heat rather than flame, the machine can turn a kilogram of plastic into a liter of crude gas on just one kilowatt of electricity. The resulting fuel can be used to run stoves or generators and, if refined, can even power cars.

Bélanger reports that more than 60 businesses worldwide are currently using the Blest Machine. As the number grows, so does the value of old plastic, creating incentive to clean the earth and oceans even as we transition to cleaner sources of fuel.

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