The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish
March 17, 2009

Plastic into Oil? What do you think?

This just in: Oregon plastics recycler, Agri-Plas, has begun converting plastic waste back into crude oil. According to Businesswire, “the company recently delivered its first full tanker (8,200 gallons) of oil to a refinery in Tacoma, Wash., which translates to a final delivery of 196 barrels of oil.”

The method was developed by Plas2Fuel, a Kelso, Washington alternative energy company.

Until now, Agri-Plas has been a conventional plastics recycler, focusing on agricultural waste such as greenhouse film, nursery pots and plastic binder twine, as well as limited amounts of household plastic waste, which it recycles into other plastic products.

Now, the company is collecting dirty plastic materials which are unsuitable for traditional recycling for the plastic to oil process. And the state of Oregon has been a major supporter of the project, giving financial assistance through the Oregon Business Energy Tax Credit.

Right now, my head is swimming with all kinds of pros and cons. Here are the ramifications that occur to me. Maybe you guys can think of more.

First, the pros:

1) Whether we like it or not, our landfills are already chock full of dirty plastic, possibly leaching chemicals. Perhaps this material doesn’t have to go to waste.

2) It does seem preferable to use our own domestic waste to create petroleum rather than importing it from the Middle East or extracting it through offshore drilling.

Next, the cons:

1) Burning petroleum for fuel produces the greenhouse gases related to global climate change. (I know at least one FPF reader will disagree with that statement.)

2) Finding uses for our plastic waste could support the creation of more plastic waste. Will consumers feel relieved of their burden of responsibility? Will they continue to support the manufacture of new plastic products?

As I’ve pointed out before, plastic is fraught with many other environmental problems besides the waste issue. From manufacture to transit to end use, plastic wreaks havoc in our oceans (as pre-production “nurdles”) and in our bodies, leaching toxic chemicals. Will the idea that plastic can be converted to energy cause people to forget these other issues?

One paragraph in the article caused me to gasp:

The synthetic crude oil that Agri-Plas is reclaiming from unwanted plastic can be refined for a variety of uses. The oil can be refined and used in literally thousands of high-end products ranging from makeup to food items, as well as gasoline, diesel, lubricants and other petroleum-based products.

I’m sorry? Synthetic petroleum in my makeup? Synthetic petroleum in my food? WTF people? How are these uses environmentally sustainable?

Okay, just because it can be used in those ways doesn’t mean it will be. And extracted petroleum is already being used to create food and cosmetic additives. Still, do we want the environmental community getting behind this dirty business?

Please let me know what you think. Do the benefits of converting plastic to oil outweigh possible concerns?
 

29 comments
Drago
Drago

Plastic is just a crude step in human evolution. Now we should refine it until it becomes indistinguishable from Nature (comrpised largely of hydrocarbons). Then we can all move back to the Garden as it was in the beginning; now the dinosaurs are gone we can enjoy it properly, with unlimited supplies of seratoninergic plants and animals.

Leslie Stevens
Leslie Stevens

One by one small gains are being made in the reduction of contents filling our landfills. Recently I saw some pieces on shows like CNN and the journal with Joan Lunden on PBS that were talking about issues and solutions for industrial recycling. Along with things like zero waste policies urban mining and now waste companies finding ways to profit from being more efficient we could really see a drastic difference in the next few decades. I think there is a battle ahead but I for one see hope.

Schumi
Schumi

I see good opinions on both sides (against it and for it). One thing must be said: we need oil anyway, no matter how much solar panels and wind mills we build. Namely: wind mill bearings (even bicycles), chains, and even on carts behind the mule. And please don't suppose that you can use vegetable oil everywhere. Try putting that in your gear box or rear axle of your car. People don't usually think how the western movie style coaches were lubricated. Probably with animal grease and/or vegetable oil mix. Then we really need the wheel smith quite often. Meaning: the eco hype don't speak about lubrication. This article was about oil (from plastic), and oil lubricates things. I'm for it, since we need moving things after inventing a wheel. Sorry for my clumsy English.

A Okinaka
A Okinaka

This may make it feasible to mine our existing landfills and encourage the use of solar and wind energy for the needed power to convert plastic into oil.

Don Hennig, PE
Don Hennig, PE

JAN 2010 Plas2Fuel's conversion process represents, I suspect, a true and dramatic "Paradign Shift" is plastics recycling worldwide. Early, possibly overly optimistic, projections suggest that as much as 20 to 40% of US solid wastes to landfills will be diverted and recycled with a "overall BTU recovery rate above 60%". With a Portland, Oregon area 1,200 gallon per day revcovery plant in siting approval process in Februry 2010, the Plas2Fuel process is poised for dramatic success and recognition. The possiblitlity that the Plas2Fuel process will be used to recover the 300,000 square miles of Pacific Ocean floating plastic debris is a particularly attractive engineering and environmental proposal. A $100 million floating conversion/recovery plant could utilize PV solar, wave energy technologies and a fraction of product oil to generate up to 25,000 gallons per day of high grade synthetic oil. Don B. Hennig, PE

K
K

This comes in late, but today Oct 6th there was a new buzz about plastic-to-oil process, and a different company "Envion" doing it. Perhaps a little different process - Envion claims to be able to do it for $10/bbl. [compare to tar sands at $25/bbl, or conventional at between $5/bbl and $15/bbl. But ya, I love the idea. It is still oil, but at least it cleans up the plastic and reduces imports and drilling and, if only.... it could reduce Tar Sands expansion [they intend to QUADRUPLE it over the next 10 years] .

admin
admin

This comment was posted by Anonymous on my old Blogger site today. I'm copying it here to add to the discussion: "I have to agree with Alanna. There are way too many people who really don't care, or don't want to be inconvenienced with changing the way they do things, so the amount of plastics that can be reused will stay pretty consistent. Might as well put it to good use and reduce the amount of virgin material used. I recently decided to become as plastic-free as possible and am glad to have found this site. My recycling company is picky about what they accept, so I searched and found a place I can take the sour cream and yogurt cups and switched to butter in a box, among other changes. Thanks for what you're doing!! "

Anonymous
Anonymous

Hi!I'm a chemist.Try to imagine that all those plastics are made from petroleum. So if we get this petroleum back from those plastics which we cannot reuse, we can make new - clean plastics again! What's more, petroleum jelly, white oils, clean gasoline which are used in cosmetics are also made from petroleum so it isn't problem to produce such a clean hydrocarbon products from plastics - there are some standard petrochemical processes (like hydrorefining) for making high-quality petroleum products for cosmetics and all those processes can be also used for this "plastic"-petroleum.This is really great idea to make plastics not just a waste.

HydroBooster
HydroBooster

Walking comes before running. I would love to see our planet run on hydrogen and cleanly generated electricity. But it takes time to get there.This is a great intermediate step since it takes one of our problems and uses it to mitigate another of our problems while we work on the longer-ranged final solutions.I didn't see anyone mention 'carbon neutral'. Perhaps it is an concept that doesn't get enough press. In essence, making fuel out of carbon that is already on the surface of the planet is not pumping more carbon into the cycle. In fact, the process actually removes carbon not only from our landfills, but also turns it into useful charcoal, or carbon black which can be put into the soil and used by plants, or added to tires.Carbon is in demand in the commercial sector and will become even more of a traded product as we perfect new technologies such as carbon nano-tubes (a very strong substance).As long as it's here, let's make it useful.Now ... back to our regularly scheduled program of discussing how to reduce what we use ... perhaps carbon nanotubes can be added to glass to make it thinner and less breakable?

Anne Walk
Anne Walk

great point in con #2 re: absolution.i think you're onto something with it. feeling like it's ok to create more plastic waste because - hey! it's not waste at all! it's fuel! - sounds exactly like human nature, unfortunately.

Rosa
Rosa

I don't think finding ways to use old plastic *has* to cause us to make more - we went on a trash-picking-up walk on Sunday and I don't believe we'll *ever* run out of plastic waste.The thing that has to change is the culture - either we're gonna clean up, or we're not. If we are going to use less plastic and less oil, finding something to do with the old stuff is good. If we're not going to change our culture, we'll use whatever technology we develop as a screen to hide how bad things are.

Chiot's Run
Chiot's Run

It seems like that process would be very energy intensive. I think we need to focus more on reducing consumption and damn one-use items. I HATE that almost everything I want to buy comes in a piece of plastic that I have to recycle. This is why I try to grow my own food, no bags or boxes invovled. I make my own honey (well the bees do) and just about everything I can. I can't believe that anyone in their right mind would think that using these biproducts in things like makeup are safe.

Debbie Smith
Debbie Smith

Reduce is first, then re-use, then recycle. We need to reduce our plastic, period. There is too much plastic everywhere, plastic bags especially, particularly in trees and cows actually eat them in India. We need to get it out of the hands of people that don't care. Second, re-use as is, keep them out of the waste stream, then recycle-it costs energy to do that, putting more greenhouse gases into the air. If you convert to oil that adds more, so I would say this is the last thing you want to do, next to trashing it.

Debbie Smith
Debbie Smith

Reduce is first, then re-use, then recycle. We need to reduce our plastic, period. There is too much plastic everywhere, plastic bags especially, particularly in trees and cows actually eat them in India. We need to get it out of the hands of people that don't care. Second, re-use as is, keep them out of the waste stream, then recycle-it costs energy to do that, putting more greenhouse gases into the air. If you convert to oil that adds more, so I would say this is the last thing you want to do, next to trashing it.

The Minimalist
The Minimalist

Maybe they'll reclaim the plastic mountain in the ocean! Maybe they'll stop shipping old plastic computer parts to third world countries! It sounds like a tricky issue, but I love it anytime garbage becomes valuable. I love Oregon.

Danielle
Danielle

I think that this is a great idea, and my support of it revolves primarily around the landfill issue. I would like to see a change in culture and I would like to see companies stop using petroleum in make-up, etc, but at some point in the Greening Process, we are going to have to deal with our landfills. This is that.

Fresh and Feisty
Fresh and Feisty

They don't do PVC because the amount of oil they obtain is very small and it produces a lot more waste that they can't manage very well. Also they don't currently take styrofoam...as far as I know. They do also have scrubbers, etc. and are working very closely to meet requirements set out by the Oregon Dept. of Environmental Quality.

Lara S.
Lara S.

I wonder which types of plastic do they convert back into oil. Could they use PVCs or styrofoam? what would happen with BPA and other toxins in the process of conversion? Would they be destroyed? would they be released into the air? If they're planning on burning this oil, they should make sure that no dioxins are released into the air which is what would happen if some plastics were burned.I think this might be good if they used to recycle the landfilled dirty plastic, or non recyclable things (like packages that have different types of plastic mixed up).But you're right when you say the inconveniences of this. I agree with (S)wine in that it's not something directed on changing things, instead it's just a band-aid-like solution. "Oregon Business Energy Tax Credit" and other financial benefits alike should be given to support clean energy, instead of this.I don't know who created the "reduce, reuse, recycle" thing but it's SO great, it's like I cant stop quoting it in my mind, it's so useful to discuss this kind of problem.

Condo Blues
Condo Blues

I think it's a step in the right direction. Although I'd like to see us find alternatives to using such plastics in the first place.

Fresh and Feisty
Fresh and Feisty

Very interesting that you should post this today. I work for the OR Dept of Ag and we just had a presentation this morning by Alan (one of the owners). I think there are few important facts to keep in mind when considering how you feel about AgriPlas making oil out of plastic waste. Alan was very clear that they do not use plastics that have other uses...for example turning plastic water bottles into fabrics. The plastics they use for this process are ones that would otherwise go into a landfill. One example he gave is International Paper has two mills in Oregon. They send multiple tons of waste a day to the landfill, 70% of which is plastic. But, it's all a mix of different types. By sending this to AgriPlas we are preventing that from going to a landfill. We need to be aware of the plastic waste that is created by industry and not just us as end product consumers. It is also a very energy efficient process. For every one unit of energy put in they get 8 units out. I agree that it's probably not as great as not creating the plastic in the first place but currently the gasses created are burned for energy for the process and they are working with another company to create a market that uses up the leftover carbon. He also discussed a small amount of acid is created as a by-product. They are able to sell that to another company that uses it. And, they get a premium for the oil created. It is "clean" and doesn't have to be refined. I do agree however I shuddered a bit when he mentioned it going into cosmetics...but you've covered that before Beth. All in all, I personally think it's a good thing rather than a bad thing. As another poster stated, it's a step in the right direction. And people like Alan are starting to think outside the box.

Robj98168
Robj98168

I like the idea of recycling plastic into oil, it will create green jobs, and help with our dependance on foreign oil, WHta I don't like about it is it will keep us addicted to our oil habit in this country, and keep the drivers in their SUV's- but the short picture is probably better than the Big picture. I agree with Alana for the most part

M
M

I am torn about this. It does seem like a good short term solution, but based on the amount of time they put into this project, I wonder how long this has to happen, what sort of money needs to be made or on what scale this has to occur for this technology to become prevalent and cost effective. We do have a lot of wasted plastic (you just posted about the medical stuff recently & we all know there are many that don't recycle), so we need to figure out to work with what we have already created.On the other hand I was recently talking to a friend who grew up in Germany and he said he sometimes feels like the recycling type of programs we have here in Los Angeles are stoneaged when compared to some of the programs going on in Germany. So many of the things we have going on here in the U.S. are not about stopping us from ending up in the situation we are in. Instead they deal with the "bad" after effects. We really need to stop distributing drinks through plastic. I mean, the rest of the animals and plants on the earth need liquids to survive, yet we humans are the only ones that see creating a single use vessel out of plastic as a reasonable method of getting our water. What is so bad about glass drink containers that can be washed out, sterilized and used again without having to re-melt the glass again? Is it only because a company sold this idea to us? While tossing a plastic bottle or can in the trash seems convienient compared to carrying a glass soda bottle, maybe it's also time to consider why we need to be able to drink soda at any hour of any day no matter where we are.Overall it seems like there is no one stepping in and saying "yes company x, you might want to do this, but you need to be responsible for all aspects of this item you are selling, including what happens to it once it is 'used-up'", except for an occasional individual and group that can manage to influence a company to somewhat, change their ways.

Elizabeth
Elizabeth

Well, reduce is better than recycle, but recycle is a damn sight better than throw in the trash. Then we still get sick from it, but don't get any use out of it! And while we may stop using plastic someday, that day is going to be very, very far in the future. I don't think reusing our resources is so serious a detriment to our reduction in use that we shouldn't reuse. Does that make sense? It's just to infight-y and self-defeating for champions of one part of sustainable behavior to attack another part.

Clif
Clif

I'm suspicious of the whole thing. I looked at the sites you linked to and there is no concrete information on exactly what they are doing.I've seen a demonstration in the past of supposed plastic to petro conversion in which an oven similar to a microwave was used. Since the amount of plastic available as a feedstock is huge and virtually free, you would think that a process that would make the conversion would be taking off everywhere and not just in two prefab barns in Oregon (as shown at the website for the company)The cost of the process in energy is likely a big barrier as is the quality of the "oil" produced. If you are using the energy equivalent of a gallon of gas to produce a quart of oil, it ain't gonna fly.Wake me when the details are available.

nollij
nollij

I learned about Agri-Plas about 6 months ago from my cousin Gail. She has a close friend who works for the company and to me it seems like a brilliant idea. Here's my reasoning. If we were to stop using all fossil fuels today, we'd all starve to death (I've been reading Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and it's made clear to me how much petroleum we "eat"). I agree wholeheartedly that the focus needs to be on reducing the need for petroleum (and the plastics associated with it), but until it's no longer needed, reduction is key. Agri-Plas's input to the problem is currently pretty fractional: 196 Barrels of oil would service the total energy needs of a small town -in the U.S- of 2882 people for 1 day! * my statistics derived from http://snipurl.com/e04mg * So, are people going to become blasé, laissez-faire and cavalier about tossing out their plastic because Agri-Plas is in business? Many many people already are, because they're under the mistaken assumption that it's someone else's problem. So until "we" evolve en masse, solutions like the one Agri-Plas provides are going to be more beneficial than they are harmful. My $0.02.

OrneryPest
OrneryPest

Great idea because plastic exists mostly in a high chemical energy state, but a technological problem is that plastic contains several low-energy compounds, some of which are environmentally hazardous, which have got to be trapped and decomposed somehow. I hope they're solving that problem.

Emily
Emily

I completely second what the first Poster Alanna said. I think it's good to support these small steps. It will take some time for the mass population to go from not caring or understanding to complete exclusion of plastic in their lives. Your website has completely given me that 'a-ha' moment where I really take a look at plastics in my life. I have made major changes in the things that I do.

(S)wine
(S)wine

It's awful. We're dragging our feet finding dirty band-aids for dirty problems. This country is far from being committed to cleaning up its act. We will see little innovation in our lifetimes dealing w/plastics-petroleum-oil problem. It's quite disappointing what we're leaving behind for our children.

Alanna
Alanna

I think that because phasing out things like plastic and petroleum takes so long - even if a perfect alternative is found, we should always be open to finding new ways to reuse and recycle, in addition to finding alternatives. I mean, it's important to research alternative fuel cars, but for now, creating hybrid and fuel-efficient cars is helping use less oil. Same with plastic - it's good to use as little as possible, but since there will always be a large amount of people who just don't care, recycling - especially into something useful - is good. Reducing and eliminating consumption of materials like oil and plastic on which this world (and our country) relies so heavily will be difficult and take a long time - in the meantime, converting plastic to oil will at least keep some plastic from landfills.