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If oil is made from plastic, can we turn plastic back into oil?

90% of the plastic ever produced is never recycled, with 8 million tons of it entering our oceans every year. Plastic pollution is endangering the marine environment and its inhabitants, but Plastic-to-fuel technology could be the solution we are looking for. Let’s learn more about why plastic-to-fuel could work, and the community that has embraced it.





Bubble tea is the beverage for most Singaporeans. My family and friends have to drink bubble tea at least once a week, or they will have what they call “bubble tea withdrawal”. A lot of people drink bubble tea using plastic straws, in plastic cups while carrying it in plastic bags. Please count the number of plastic items involved in drinking 1 cup of bubble tea. GrabFood says that on average, Singaporeans order 3 cups of bubble tea every month. When taking into account the population, millions of pieces of single-use plastic waste is generated just like that.




Photo by Brian Yurasits on Unsplash


Every year, over 8 million tons of plastic end up in our oceans. There are islands of trash that were brought together by the currents in the Pacific Ocean, and those trash islands are known collectively as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It is hard to measure exactly how much garbage there is in the Patch, but in the first place, no garbage should even be in the oceans. Plastics make up much of the Patch, and are non-biodegradable, which is bad news for the environment. Over time, plastics will break down into smaller pieces into microplastics, making it extremely hard for humans to fully clean them up. This means that plastic will still be in the ocean beyond our lifetimes. Plastic-to-fuel is a promising way to solve this problem and clean the earth of the plastic already polluting it.


So, why exactly can plastic be turned into fuel? Well, plastic is commonly made using Naphtha, a component of crude oil. Naphtha is a mixture of hydrocarbons; thus, plastics have the potential to be converted into fuel sources again. There are innovative technologies appearing in the recent years on Plastic-to-fuel processes, with different teams focused on turning plastics into different types of fuel. The general way that plastic-to-fuel is achieved is fairly similar for the most part. Waste plastics that cannot be recycled are heated up in an environment with no oxygen and high pressure, in a process of pyrolysis, into gases. The gases are cooled into different products that could have uses as energy products. There is no burning of plastics involved in the process. To achieve different end products, there will be different steps added or technologies used.


So far, plastic has been turned into hydrogen, low Sulphur diesel, and man-made crude oil with the potential for it to be used as kerosene or gasoline as energy sources for cars. By turning these plastics into fuel, a circular economy can be formed where plastic waste is eliminated by turning them into resources once again. Also, Plastic-to-fuel could help us clear the planet of its current load of waste plastic, and use less of crude oil, which is a finite resource.





Scenery of Pulau Medang.

Photo by: Medang4Change


A community that has embraced Plastic-to-fuel is Pulau Medang in Indonesia. Being a remote island, Medang did not have any recycling facilities, and plastic used was always discarded. Plastic waste was prevalent on Medang, with 2 to 3 meters of ocean plastic washing onto their beaches every day. Medang relies heavily on fuels, to power boats that go in and out of the island, and also for their cooking stoves.




The Medang4Change Team.

Photo by: Medang4Change


Medang4Change

Seeing the value and potential of plastic waste on Medang, Ocean Purpose Project, together with Lisa Jones, a Pilates instructor, started Medang4Change as a social enterprise to tackle plastic waste. The area of focus for Ocean Purpose Project with Medang was to 1) inspire a mindset shift about plastic, and 2) aid locals to embrace plastic pyrolysis. This first was done by educating children and integrating beach cleanups into their school curriculums. The elderly were taught to craft plastic chairs and bags out of waste. The second focus was fulfilled when a pyrolysis machine that processes plastic and converts it into kerosene arrived on the Island. Locals were trained to be pyrolysis machine operators, creating new jobs. The kerosene produced is sold to make money, and discounts are given to those who bring in plastic. The discount of 1,000IDR for every 1 liter of plastic is a big deal to these locals, as their minimum wage is 2,000,000IDR per month. The plastic on Medang is now valuable, and locals think twice before throwing it out.


Now, Medang4Change is focused on refusing the use of plastic, and envision their island to be plastic free by 2021. Medang has found a solution to their plastic waste through Plastic-to-fuel, and they are educating and training locals and their children to keep this circular economy going in the years to come.


Other than Medang4Change, who is paving the way for other islands, let’s take a look at Renewlogy, a company that is turning plastic to fuel, and aiding river communities along the way.


Renewlogy

Renewlogy was founded in 2011 when Priyanka Bakaya, then a student at MIT, saw the ugly side of plastic use while working on a project in India. She saw how large amounts of plastics were burned, and how the waste collectors are suffering. After finding out that less than 10% of all plastic is recycled, Priyanka Bakaya and her team started working on ways to convert plastic into fuel. They succeeded, and now, Renewlogy’s innovative systems can process and convert all types of plastic into high value products, like naphtha.


Right now, Renewlogy is working on creating a plastic waste-free Ganges River, through its foundation, Renew Oceans. Renew Oceans is working with Alliance to End Plastic Waste, where they work with the local community to collect soft plastics using The Reverse Vending Machine, where people are rewarded with coupons for the plastic they collect. The collected plastics are converted into diesel using the mobile RenewOne system, which can be used by the locals, thereby creating a circular economy. They aim to expand this project to other rivers that flow into the ocean and divert the waste to create fuel for the locals.


Learn more about Renewlogy here: http://renewlogy.com/





Photo by Antoine GIRET on Unsplash



Even though plastic-to-fuel is very promising as a solution to plastic pollution, we should still strive to reduce our use of single-use plastic, like the locals on Pulau Medang. The next time you drink bubble tea, try to bring along your own reusable tumbler or bottle, and drink using a metal straw. If we keep on producing more plastic waste, thinking that there are people who will take care of the plastic pollution problem for us, this crisis will never come to an end, no matter how many innovative plastic waste solutions there are.


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