I'm always wary of any energy related story put forth by National Propaganda Radio, but this NPR article on a company that has apparently figured out a feasible way to make oil from plastic waste is interesting:
Only 7 percent of plastic waste in the United States is recycled each year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. A startup company in Niagara Falls says it can increase that amount and reduce the country's dependence on foreign oil at the same time.So how much does the process cost?
It all starts with a machine known as the Plastic-Eating Monster. Thousands of pounds of shredded milk jugs, water bottles and grocery bags tumble into a large tank, where they're melted together and vaporized. This waste comes from landfills and dumps from all over the United States.
"Basically, they've been mining their piles for us and sending them here," says John Bordynuik, who heads his namesake company, JBI Inc. He invented a process that converts plastic into oil by rearranging its hydrocarbon chains.
Each barrel of oil costs about $10 to produce. JBI can sell it for around $100 through a national distributor. The young company is already producing a few thousand gallons of oil a day. It has signed lucrative deals to set up operations next to companies with large volumes of plastic waste.So what's the bottom line here?
"We don't make a synthetic 'other' product that has problems," he says. "We make an in-spec fuel like everyone else. If anything, the word 'alternative' has a stigma attached to it, more so because of prior attempts."Some issues that were not addressed by the article that I wish they would have covered are: exactly how much plastic does it take to make a barrel of oil? Are there significant environmental impacts to be considered should this technology become widely used? How does the energy density of a barrel of this oil compare with a barrel of crude oil? How scale-able is this technology, really?
If JBI has its way, plastics will become a significant source of domestic fuel that reduces the U.S. dependence on foreign oil. But just how "green" is JBI's recycling, when it produces a fossil fuel that pollutes just like any other?
"To enter themselves into this industry, I think that they've all bought into the idea of producing a fuel," says Carson Maxted of Resource Recycling, the plastic recycling industry's trade journal.
Maxted says he's not sure whether converting plastic to oil can be considered recycling, or even environmentally friendly. But he says JBI's methods can co-exist, and even complement, current recycling practices.
"They're getting value from something that would otherwise go to the landfill," he says, "because the plastics most of them are looking for, the plastics that are not easily recycled, they're of low quality or mixed-plastic types, or they're dirty — things that wouldn't be accepted into a recycler."
And because there's no lack of waste-plastic supply, and no lack of demand for oil, Maxted says the technology has the potential to transform both industries.
On the one hand, it is gratifying to see that someone may have successfully figured out a way to put those mountains of plastic garbage to good use. On the other hand, the fact that we are considering mining our own landfills to get more oil just shows how desperate we really are. It will be interesting to see if this company continues to be successful whether this process becomes touted by the media as the latest great technology that is going to "save" our happy suburban, consumerist lifestyles. If so, it will become yet another pipe dream pumped out by the Hologram to keep the masses thinking that everything is going to be just fine.
Bonus: "Everything is going to be all right...rock-a-bye"