Friday, March 23, 2012

Startup Company Converts Plastic To Oil

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.

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.
So how much does the process cost?
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."

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.
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?

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"


  1. Shuffling

    Shuffling hydrocarbon chains
    Will not yield significant gains;
    It’s more chair-shuffling panic
    Aboard the Titanic
    In what little time now remains.

    1. Dude, that's awesome! Peak Oil Poetry in motion.

  2. A lot of that plastic garbage is made from fossil fuels in the first place. Thermodynamically, its almost certainly a loser, as it obviously takes more energy to make all the plastic garbage in the first place than you get out in plasti-oil and our ability to make so much plasitc in the first place is contingent on cheap fossil fuels. That said, This doesn't sound worse than just landfilling the product, which is a waste of all the energy embodied in the plastic.

  3. Surely the thermodynamics of this conversion have got to be a serious limitation on the EROEI. I seem to remember from my high school and college chemistry classes that if a reaction produces energy in one direction, it requires energy to push it in the other direction. So how much energy went into the initial transformations of petroleum into plastics? What sort of energy needs to be pumped into the plastics to return them to oil? At what point does the energy that goes into the conversion of plastic to oil outweigh the energy contained in the oil that is produced? Those are the sorts of questions I want to ask.

  4. Could somebody collect up the huge area of floating plastic in mid-Pacific and turn it into a profit? It's killing sea birds and other sea life. Right now it doesn't pay to collect it.

  5. The ability to turn carbon-based things into oil is fairly well understood. The issues are generally, EROEI, scale, cost, and environmental. Thermodynamics being what they are, I'd bet dollars to donuts that this would run into problems on all four counts as they try to scale.

    That said, this would be an intriguing way to go about cleaning up the swirling garbage oceanic garbage zones. If you could outfit a tanker with appropriate equipment, it could scoop up plastic off the ocean, convert it to oil, and store the oil on-board. Once full, simply head for an oil port. Of course, this assumes a positive EROEI otherwise you would use more fuel in production than you create, would empty your fuel tanks, and would drift aimlessly in the ocean, joining the trash until rescued. ;-)

  6. Most of the plastic in the oceans is almost microscopically small particles. wiki:

    The Patch is characterized by exceptionally high concentrations of pelagic plastics, chemical sludge, and other debris that have been trapped by the currents of the North Pacific Gyre.[2] Despite its size and density, the patch is not visible from satellite photography, since it consists primarily of suspended particulates in the upper water column. Since plastics break down to ever smaller polymers, concentrations of submerged particles are not visible from space, nor do they appear as a continuous debris field.

    The major issue with recycling plastic by turning it into oil is the emissions. We need to STOP burning fuel not find new sources of fuel to burn. Three reasons, each one compelling enough:

    1. Ocean acidification
    2. Ecosystem collapse from tropospheric ozone
    3. Climate change

    Each separately will result in mass extinction, never mind all together.

  7. The youtube here:
    shows the size of the plastic to be about the same size as 'shredded plastic', and easy to collect with trawls. Better burn the stuff than kill sea life - lesser of two evils.