From the United Nations University comes the story of Akinori Ito and his quest not only to create a machine that turns plastic back into oil but do it with a device that anyone can use. In the video below, the CEO of Blest (Japanese homepage here) talks about how as a child he used to love playing in nature – not even really caring about it or being an “environmentalist” but simply enjoying it. Once he had his own children, he realized that many of the places he used to play had disappeared in Tokyo’s sprawl. He wanted to help in some small way. Since plastic is made from oil to begin with, he figured it wouldn’t be too hard to convert it back to oil. By doing so he would fulfill the 3R’s of Reduce (less oil needed), Reuse (use the same oil again), and Recycle (start the cycle over) while adding a much needed fourth R: rethink. (For a local spin on similar technology, take a look at Envion which is running at the Montgomery County, MD waste transfer station).
Though the chemistry is not delved into, from the video the machine works by putting normal plastic garbage directly into the machine and turning on the switch to heat the material, thereby breaking it down into oil. That oil can be used as is or processed further to get gasoline, kerosene, etc. One kilogram yields about 1 liter of oil. The pollution savings are impressive. Japan recycles an outstanding 70% of its plastic but has to burn the remaining amount as there is scant land available for landfills. According to the video, burning 1kg of plastic produces 3kg of CO2 but using electricity and heat to turn that plastic back into oil can reduce those emissions by 80%. From the United Nations University article
Blest’s conversion technology is very safe because it uses a temperature controlling electric heater rather than flame. The machines are able to process polyethylene, polystyrene and polypropylene (numbers 2-4) but not PET bottles (number 1). The result is a crude gas that can fuel things like generators or stoves and, when refined, can even be pumped into a car, a boat or motorbike. One kilogram of plastic produces almost one liter of oil. To convert that amount takes about 1 kilowatt of electricity, which is approximately ¥20 or 20 cents’ worth.
Where the real breakthrough in this technology comes from, however, is in the “rethink” part of the invention. The machine can be transported on a plane and flown to both the developed and developing worlds to teach people that plastic is not just garbage. It’s oil. It’s thrown away now because there is no perceived value in it. By making people realize that the plastic they have is actually oil – and that it has a value such as being used to power their cars – the possibilities of this invention reach far beyond the mere technical to where people may decide to save or pick up plastic instead of litter of throw away without thinking. It may, in fact, be an “isseki ni cho” invention: getting the two birds of technological and behavioral change with one stone.