Converting Plastic Waste to Fuel

By Carrissa Pahl Published on Sept. 24, 2020

How can more companies get involved in the fight to end plastic waste? There are already so many packaging, sorting, and plastic collection companies, but what else can ignite change? 

A modern office can produce a considerable amount of waste, ranging from plastic packaging to small or medium-sized electronic devices. These products are sometimes difficult to separate and recycle properly. Almost a quarter of all plastic products are made with polypropylene. Some researchers have come up with a way to convert these polypropylene products into oil and fuel.

“In 2014 we hauled an estimated 32 million metric tons of food waste resources to landfills, or about 70 trillion pounds of waste, according to the Department of Energy.” Said Uisung Lee, an energy systems analyst at Argonne National Laboratory.


Why Turn Plastic to Fuel?

Some researchers have found that less than 5% of manufactured plastic is recycled each year. This plastic riddles our ocean and researchers say that it would take more than 450 years to biodegrade, if it ever did.

The facilities that would partake in the plastic-to-fuel transformation have the potential to bring upwards of 39,000 new jobs and almost $9 billion in economic output. This could improve our economy while also providing new ways to reuse plastic and save our environment. 

Plastic-to-fuel transformation has the potential to bring upwards of 39,000 new jobs and almost $9 billion in economic output.

This new method could also be cheaper than current recycling methods. Currently, it costs upwards of $4,000 to recycle one tonne of plastic bags - this often leads to burning plastic or disposing of it in landfill to avoid these high expenses. 

Chemical recycling is much simpler. When you heat everything up at high temperatures, there is no need to pre-sort the waste. 


Different Techniques of Conversion

One of the most popular processes in converting plastic waste into fuel is called pyrolysis. This technique requires heating the plastics at a very high temperature. Materials are separated and this allows for them to be reused in an eco friendly way. 

Researchers at Purdue University have found a different technique called hydrothermal processing. The process places polypropylene in a reactor filled with water, and heat it up to extremely high temperatures ranging from 380-500 degrees Celsius. This continues for up to five hours at high pressure. At this high heat and pressure, water breaks down the plastic and converts it into oil.

Most plastics are originally made from oil so this process brings them back to the original form. 


Converting Plastic to Hydrogen

In 2018, researchers at Swansea University discovered a way to turn plastic waste into hydrogen fuel. They said that this may one day be able to power people’s cars. 

The team discovered that they could add a light-absorbing photo catalyst to plastic products - a material that absorbs sunlight and transforms it into chemical energy in a process called photoreforming. The combination of plastic and catalyst was left in an alkaline solution which was exposed to sunlight, breaking down the material and then producing bubbles of hydrogen gas in the process. 


Converting Plastic to Diesel

In collaboration with researchers from Shanghai Institute of Organic Chemistry, Chemists from the University of California, Irvine have discovered a recycling method that dissolves bonds of polyethylene plastic to create petroleum and other fuel products. 

Led by UC Irvine chemist Zhibin Guan, the team used alkanes, a type of hydrocarbon molecule, to produce polymers. After a long process of testing and researching, the team was able to find that removing and adding bonds between the carbon hydrogen atoms within the material allowed them to restructure the polyethylene into a liquid fuel that can be used in cars or other industrial purposes. 


Converting Plastic to Crude oil

A team of researchers from Illinois Sustainable Technology Center B.K. Sharma and Kishore Rajagopalan along with the US Department of Agriculture, have successfully converted plastic bags into fuel. 

By using high-density polyethylene bags from local retailers and feeding them into a pyrolysis unit, they were able to create plastic crude oil (PCO). As a result, they distilled the PCO to make gasoline and two different types of diesel. 


Converting Plastic to Sulphur

Plastic2Oil, a US firm works to turn plastic into sulphur fuel by using the discarded material as feedstock to create an ultra-low sulphur diesel. Today ultra-low sulphur diesel is mainly produced from petroleum. However Plastic2Oil provides a viable alternative with its plastic-derived fuel. Minimal energy is required for this technique since the processor uses its own off-gases as fuel.


What are the Advantages

Some advantages of converting plastic waste into fuel include:

  • Low cost

  • The plants that convert waste to fuel are producing fuels from combustible materials. These materials such as, non-recyclable papers, plastics, wood waste, and textiles are all either hard to recycle or non-recyclable. This is preventing those materials from ending up in a landfill.

  • Fuels that are produced can be tailored to a certain need - such as transportation or other uses where heat is required. This makes them suitable alternatives to fossil fuels.

  • Can be burned with a lower carbon footprint than fossil fuels

  • There is potential to expand the materials used to metal waste and others that may not be easily recyclable.

These are just some of the many benefits that converting waste into fuel can have on our environment and our ecosystems. 


What are the Challenges

With all the advantages, there has to come some challenges. Here are some of the challenges that come along with the conversion of waste to fuel.

  • There are some concerns around health risks due to energy recovery from the waste. 

    • Burning solid fuel can release nitrous oxides, sulphur dioxides, particulate matter, and other harmful pollutants

    • With continuous regulation and pollution control technologies, these emissions can be managed

  • Countries like Sweden are worried because they rely so heavily on importing garbage from other European countries. The recycling industry is worried that plastic waste-to-fuel will damage or undermine the economy of other waste-to-fuel processes such as solid waste-to-fuel.

  • This process requires careful planning so that the right regulations are put in place and balance the needs of existing recycling processes.

This could be our way to a landfill-free world, but everyone needs to get on board. 


Plastic to Fuel Companies

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BRADAM’s Carbon Energy Recovery process can safely and efficiently process non-recyclable plastics and convert it into electricity and synthetic natural gas for homes and businesses. It can also produce large quantities of hydrogen which can be used in fuel cells to power automobiles and support the electric grid. BRADAM is even working on a process that can produce the raw materials used to produce plastics from non-recyclable plastics creating a circular economy using waste to produce new products without needing fossil fuels. The BRADAM Carbon Energy Recovery system creates energy from waste using a revolutionary process that is highly efficient, economical and environmentally friendly.


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Using energy-efficient, low-emissions pyrolysis, we are able to convert  traditionally non-recyclable plastics into highly profitable fuel and chemical products. Microwaves power our uniquely designed, compact system. Clean fuels produced by the Resynergi system are an alternative to refined oil products.  Our low carbon-intensity fuels are extracted from waste, not the earth. Our process produces 60% Less GHG emissions for diesel compared to fossil fuel extraction and refining. 


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Sierra Energy’s FastOx gasification eliminates the need for landfills. Household trash, hazardous waste, tires, medical waste, construction and demolition materials are converted into energy, safely and responsibly. Sierra Energy is focused on the development of FastOx® gasification, a technology that turns trash into energy without burning. The company continues to advance its technology and test new applications for gasification at the Sierra Energy Research Park in Davis, California. Sierra Energy’s commercial demonstration facility is located in Monterey County, California.


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Blue Sphere transforms millions of tons of agricultural, municipal and industrial waste into sustainable clean energy and other by-products.Over time, independent power producers like Blue Sphere will replace the need for environmentally harmful landfills that pollute our soil, underground water tables and atmosphere. Instead of burying organic waste, Blue Sphere transforms these harmful materials into sustainable clean energy, helping to eliminate the release of damaging greenhouse gases.


If you would like to learn more about our partnership with the Alliance to End Plastic Waste and our End Plastic Waste initiative, please visit our website.