In 2050, the number of plastic bags should be greater than the number of fish in the oceans. Knowing that this material takes an average of 1,000 years to decompose, there could be dramatic consequences for the global ecosystem. In order to remedy such a situation and put this waste to good use, some American researchers have had the ingenious idea of transforming it into fuel.
Plastic waste is a symbol of our society’s need to consume. According to a study by the WorldWatch institute, the Americans are ‘champions’ at producing plastic waste: they throw away around 100 billion plastic bags every year, and only 13% of these are recycled.
Most of the time, this plastic waste ends up at the bottom of the seas and oceans. As an example, it is believed that plastic bags alone represent between 60% and 80% of marine waste. However, the decomposition of these materials takes time — hundreds of years — and thus actively contributes to the erosion of a fragile ecosystem.
In light of this, an American team at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has developed a procedure capable of converting plastic waste into fuel. The premise is simple: as plastic is created from oil-based sources, it can just be recycled and reconverted into oil.
The actual technique is more complicated. The researchers have designed a conversion process by which the plastic bag undergoes pyrolysis, meaning that it is heated at high temperature in an oxygen-free room. This procedure yields very diverse fuels: diesel, natural gas, naphtha, petrol, etc. This method can generate more energy than it consumes.
As proof of the credibility of this method, Suez Environnement subsidiary, Sita UK, and British start-up, Cynar, have teamed up to create ten plants that will produce diesel entirely from household plastic waste. Each year, they will therefore recycle 60,000 tons of plastic waste.
“The quality of the diesel produced is equivalent to that of a fuel produced through conventional channels”, says Adrien Henry, Director of Blue Orange, which is Suez Environnement’s venture capital fund. So it’s efficient, but is it better for the environment? Although its ecological footprint proves to be slightly better than that of a traditional fuel, the fact remains that it is not totally sustainable...