Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

Plastic Waste to Oil? You Might be on to Something

Plastics to Oil” —  That was the headline of a recent article in the Washington Post and it certainly grabbed my attention.  Come to find out, on September 16th, an Envion oil generator was scheduled for an official unveiling.  Converting plastic waste to synthetic oil, it is to be run as a pilot project until the end of October at the Montgomery County, Md. solid waste transfer station. Envion is a privately held company in the DC area.   

The generator, about three stories high, can convert plastic waste to synthetic oil that can then be converted into fuel for a truck or airplane.   The pilot generator has a capacity for handling more than 6,000 tons of plastic a year.  The company plans to scale up in the future.

According to the article, the “far-infrared ray” technology works by melting plastic in an oxygen free environment to separate the hydrocarbons headed for the oil end product from the additives used to make the original plastic container.  Any type of plastic can be fed into the generator.  The output volume depends on the type of plastic reclaimed.  Envionsays it cost about $10 to convert the plastic waste into a barrel’s worth of synthetic oil.  This is pretty neat stuff and intriguing technology.

A few days later I read another article about this project in Plastics News in which Envion's CEO, Michael Han, said his uncle, a Korean businessman, developed the technology in the 1990s but needed capital to get it off the ground.  The article also states that Polyflow Corp. (Akron, OH) has been working to commercialize a similar technolology.

On the surface it seems a great way to “recycle” those plastic items that are in low-demand by commercial recyclers or that municipalities don't accept. I can’t say I view this new technology as a silver bullet because I don’t know enough about it yet.  I am trying to think of the pros and cons  from a public perspective: 

  • Could this process complement traditional recycling methods of sorting and baling  post-consumer plastics for which there is a demand ( i.e. plastic bottles)? What’s not in demand could be processed to oil by one of these generators.   
  • Is this process more efficient than others? 
  • Is it more cost-effective than other processes? 
  • Does this process leave a smaller footprint than others?   

What do you think? I'm thinking it just might be worth a drive up the road to Maryland to see this thing in action.

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