Turning Plastic into Fuel

According to National Geographic, less than 5% of the plastic manufactured each year is recycled globally, with the production of the material set to increase by 3.8% every year until 2030, adding to the 6.3 billion tonnes churned out since production began 60 years ago. Most of this plastic ends up in our oceans, becoming a disruption for marine ecosystems, and researchers say it would take a minimum of 450 years for it to biodegrade, if ever. So what are we doing in this regard, to help make things better?

We use many recycled plastics to make our modern life more live-able. Whether it is to make our food freshness last longer, to keep medical supplies safe and sterile, or to insulate less energy within our houses, we now know that single-use of plastic is harmful, and it’s not getting us anywhere. It is, in fact, destroying the planet we live in. Luckily, many individuals, organizations, and major worldwide entities are organizing to find alternate solutions where the recycled plastic can be used. And this time, the researchers are conducting the new big thing which is turning plastic to fuel.

Plastic water bottles pollution in ocean
Plastic water bottles pollution in ocean


How does this work?

To turn plastic into fuel, such a process needs to involve the usage of the chemical energy stored in the material’s hydrocarbon structure to create fuel. This is a method that is highly praised for its economic and environmental benefits, with researchers keeping it in the developmental stage for a long time, and its finally taking off.

People at Livescience have looked thoroughly through this process, noting that the reason plastics have such intrinsic value as a fuel source is because “Plastics are created primarily from energy feedstocks, typically natural gas or oil (mostly natural gas in the United States). The hydrocarbons that makeup plastics are embodied in the material itself, essentially making plastics a form of stored energy, which can be turned into a liquid fuel source”.

They explain this highly economical beneficial process in three steps:

  1. Plastics are collected and sorted for recycling. Then the non-recycled plastics (or residuals) are shipped to a plastics-to-fuel facility, where they are heated in an oxygen-free environment, melted and vaporized into gases. The gases are then cooled and condensed into a variety of useful products. Plastics-to-fuel technologies do not involve combustion.
  2. Depending on the specific technology, products can include synthetic crude or refined fuels for home heating; ingredients for diesel, gasoline or kerosene; or fuel for industrial combined heat and power.
  3. Companies sell petroleum products to manufacturers and industrial users, while fuels can help power cars, buses, ships, and planes.

Turns out that plastic delivered fuels, except for being environmentally friendly to use, are also cleaner fuels. This, because of the low level of sulfur that is present in the content of plastics. Meanwhile currently many developing economies use diesel that is high in sulphur content.

Plastic ready for processing and recycling
Plastic ready for processing and recycling

Who’s actually doing this already?

There are a few countries that have already brought to practice the process of plastic to fuel conversion, and they’re implementing with great success. These countries are Japan, Germany, and the United States. They’ve also created business models out of the conversion process, making the conversion model quite of a profitable business.

But we’re rooting specifically for India through this article, and their achievements towards this methodology, as we know that plastic waste in India has become a crucial problem for so many years now. India’s daily generation of plastic is estimated to be around 15,000 tonnes, and their dependency level on it is enormous, that’s why individuals and organisations are always seeking for ways to reuse plastic in innovative, sustainable ways.

Regarding the plastic-to-fuel, India has gone a long way, but its managing to break through with the methodology as well. According to Swachhindia, the Dehradun based Indian Institute of Petroleum (IIP), a constituent laboratory of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) developed a unique process of converting plastic waste to either gasoline or diesel ever since 2014. Their technology is capable of converting 1 kg of plastic to 750 ml of automotive grade gasoline. Due to nearly nil presence of Sulphur in the produced fuel, IIP’s plastic converted fuel is pure and meets the Euro-III standards.

“IIP also stated that a vehicle using this fuel would be able to run for at least two kilometres more per litre. The technology was developed by IIP after nearly a decade of research in hope of commercialising it for industrial usage.”

The technologies involved in converting plastic waste to fuel are not complicated to replicate. Hence, if done so on a large scale, all they will do is help India address the ever-growing issue of plastic waste.

Another country that is also progressing on the plastic to fuel conversion process is also the Czech Republic. The Czech start-up company Plastoil Europe has developed a recycling technology that can turn most ordinary plastic waste into oil. The company’s first fully functional mobile unit – over eight years in the making – was recently unveiled and will be brought to market this year – this, according to EnglishRadio.cz and the correspondences that this medium had with this company. These professionals call the mobile unit Optimus, and they say that it works through the chemical process of “thermal depolymerization”.

The process of experimenting and trying this methodology of fuel production is new for consumers and the audience in general. More testing and more progress is still expected in most countries, and there is yet to see if there are any negative backlashes from environmental activists, as there were protests causing the halting of a planned waste-to-fuel facility in Lancashire last year. An investigation was also initiated in Canberra, Australia following environmentalists’ complaints that the waste-to-fuel industry will only slow down the efforts of finding fuel alternatives and reducing the carbon footprint.

Photos: Shutterstock / Photomontage: Martina Advaney

More articles on waste management here:

Precious Plastic: A Global Community of Recycling Entrepreneurs

Food Waste: Solutions Are Easier Than You Think

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