Returning plastic to oil

July 6, 2015

Plastic may have been the wonder invention of the 20th century, but we all know its tenacious lifespan is causing havoc throughout the planet’s ecosystems. It’s estimated that only 8 percent of the world’s plastic is currently recycled. Traditional plastic recycling is limited to certain types of plastic and often converted into new plastic-based products. However, an emerging method of converting all types of plastics into oil may be the solution to the mounting accumulation of plastics in the environment. It may help to vastly reduce our use of carbon-dense fossil fuels.

The method of converting plastic to oil has been studied by many scientists in recent decades, but these systems have tended to be small-scale and relatively expensive. An MIT graduate student, Priyanka Bakaya, founded PK Clean in 2011 to tackle plastic to oil conversion on a large scale. Bakaya’s system uses heat in a process called “catalytic depolymerization.”  The plastics are first shredded then sent through a reactor which runs around 400 degrees Celsius. The resulting vapor is passed through a condenser and converted to oil. About 70-80 percent of the plastic that goes in comes out as oil. The remainder becomes hydrocarbon gas that can heat the system, with a small percentage left over as char residue.

Bakaya claims her system costs a quarter of the price of other systems, while producing a greater yield. Currently the company is based in Salt Lake City, Utah where it hopes to sell their plants to recyclers and directly to industrial companies that produce their own mass waste.  “We realize we first have to get started in the U.S., but the long-term vision is a huge market overseas in developing countries,” says Bakaya.

To read more about catalytic depolymerization, click here.

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