Plastics to Fuel: Will Used Plastics Help Power America?

Professor Plastics

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Man pointing at green drop of biofuel

If you’ve been reading my posts, you know I’m a big fan of recycling everyday plastics so they can live on as new products. How big a fan? Let’s just say I recently caught one of my students throwing away a plastic bottle, so I made him write a paper on why plastics are too valuable to waste. (That’s right. I’m that professor.)

And that’s why I’m so excited about—OK, borderline obsessed with—an emerging process that converts used plastics into oil and fuels. It’s called plastics to fuel, a new technology to convert waste to energy.

What is Plastics to Fuel?

Think about it: plastics are derived from materials found in nature, such as natural gas, oil, coal, and plants, which we use as energy sources. Of course, we should continue to recycle as many plastics as we can, and now, with this new technology, we we’ll be able use the energy captured in the plastics that don’t get recycled, instead of simply burying them in a landfill.

And companies like Agilyx, RES Polyflow and Cynar are doing just that.

How Plastics to Fuel Technology Works

Wonder how it works? The process varies, and this description is really simplified, but it usually involves these steps.

First, plastics are collected and sorted for recycling. Then the plastics not headed for recycling are shipped to the plastics to fuel facility. After sorting, these non-recycled plastics are heated in an oxygen-free environment, where they first melt into a liquid and then vaporize into gases. The gases are cooled and condensed into a wide variety of useful products, such as synthetic crude oil, synthetic diesel fuel, kerosene and more.

Turning Waste to Energy

There’s a lot to love about plastics to fuel technology—and not just if you’re a chemistry geek like me. Like recycling itself, plastics to fuel keeps used plastics out landfills and turns them into something useful. (Burying valuable resources such as plastics is a HUGE waste).

And it holds enormous promise: One plastics to fuel company says that its system can convert 50 tons of plastic waste into 12,600 gallons of oil—per day.

Yep, I’d have to say I’m officially a fan of plastics to fuel technology. I’d better warn my students.