Converting plastic back to oil

2010-09-16

Source: http://ourworld.unu.edu/en/plastic-to%20-oil-fantastic/

First of all, this is good news but also any total answer is complicated. Converting plastic back into oil is a good way to get rid of plastic, but remember that burying plastic releases 0g of CO2 whereas converting it back into oil and then using it in your motor bike will be much worse for the environment than just burning it outright. Of course the best solution is not making oil into plastic, and reducing oil use in all forms; converting plastic into oil is simply a way to get more out of a particular problem/demand than initially possible. And since there is a lot of dumb people still using oil to make a lot of 1-use plastic items (packaging, plastic bags) and since there is an ever increasing demand for oil for vehicles, and since most of the plastic trash is in 3rd world countries and the pacific ocean, this is mainly a good thing. Good because it will reduce 3rd world dependency on oil, good because it gives local communities a new source of wealth, and good because it will help to ease the bump of peak oil.

However, it is also bad news because now we will be burning a lot of plastic that we otherwise would be burying, so the net impact on global warming is actually worse because of this, not better.

Also, the process is never 1:1 so if it takes 100g of oil to make 90g of plastic, you probably can't get more than 80g of oil from the reverse process; and then the question also remains: how much net-energy is required to convert the plastic back to oil?

Crude oil is about 100:1 net-energy, wind/solar about 25:1. Oil shales and tar sands are about 1.2 to 5:1 net energy (so actually far worse than renewables), most crude oil is gone since decades, and the oil we are currently using is more in the range of 5 to 50:1 net energy.

If net-energy doesn't make sense, it's a ratio that measures what you have to "pay" for what you get out. So if the ratio is 25:1 then it means that you might expend 1000Joules of energy to get 25 times that amount back (25,000).

If the conversion of plastic back into oil is anything less than 25:1, and I'm sure it cant be as good as tar sands (which are a measly 1.5:1 to 5:1) then oil from plastic would be an expensive process that would provide a means of getting rid of garbage rather than providing a real prolongation of oil as a fuel source... But that all depends on the net-energy of this technology; which was not in the video.

The true term for this kind of recycling, which is the same as recycling paper, is "down-cycling" you delay the time it takes something to reach the dump, but you do not make it fit into a cradle-to-cradle system (where waist = food). Even worse, you now burn it!! So it is impossible to recycle/down-cycle further once burned.

Far better would be to make plastic not biodegradable or recoverable into oil, but rather bio-Edible! If we made plastic food for other animals (bacteria, birds, fungus, mice etc) then we would be creating a closed loop in our ecosystem. Not only that, but you could toss trash anywhere and nature would only thank you for it because it would be food for an other.

For example: when a human dies, the worst thing you can do is burn yourself into ashes, you create carbon and you also destroy all these nutrients into nothing, you break the cycle of life and convert perfectly useful biomass which could cycle from human to soil, to plant to animal and beyond for millenniums back into it's useless constituents: light, gas, liquids and mater. Life traps (is) light, and when you release that light, you unbind it from the perpetual cycle of life.

So, long story short: bad news for our climate since now more oil will be burned, good news for local communities if they can get access to this technology (hopefully not patented or restrictively expensive), good news also for mitigating peak-oil eventual supply-demand issues that will happen as the finds of oil that we discover keep getting lower, harder to extract and poorer in quality. Also good news for coastal and marine life as less plastic will be entering the water if this is widely adopted. Irrelevant news when it cones to making our society sustainable as this is down-cycling and the problem of oil running out eventually remains.