For the past several years, Surfers Without Borders have been researching various methods of producing energy from waste. While there are many clean ways to get electricity from biomass or organic matter, we were particularly looking for ways to create an incentive for people to clean up the ocean, mainly the plastic that has gathered itself and our attention in the Northern Pacific Gyre.
There are more convergence zones than the Pacific Garbage Patch, and a total of 5 major gyres. We now know with reasonable certainty that plastic is indeed accumulating in all of these areas of the ocean.
"Geez, Professor, thatsalotta plastic... Could it be worth something?"
After all, its made from oil- isn't it?
After many sessions surfing the internet, we came across a pretty promising process and series of machines designed by the Blest Corporation of Japan. After contacting them we were put in touch with their US representatives, E-N-ergy Inc.
This last week, E-N-ergy visited Surfers Without Borders at the Orella Stewardship Institute to demonstrate the innovation that turns common household plastics into usable oil (click here to watch the video of the demonstration- 3 parts). The machines range from a small desktop units to large continuous processing machines and refiners that can handle up to multiple tons of plastic waste.
The Blest Be-h desktop unit was on hand converting plastic grocery bags, milk and water jugs, margarine and yogurt containers into oil that can run generators and other engines. The desktop unit is ideal for classrooms, small offices or home use. (click here to watch a video of the process)
Cutting up an old tupperware for processing
Plastics of type #2, #4, #5, #6 and some #7 are usable, including bags, wrappers, and other thin film plastics that are not recyclable (which are also the most damaging to the environment).
The plastics are put into the melting chamber where they are heated to around 420 deg C, at which point the plastic boils and the hot gasses are run through a water bath to be condensed into oil.
The machine in action- the cylinder on the right contains the gas from plastic that has
heated and is being condensed through normal tap water
Touchscreen makes for easy operation
The desktop unit uses 1 kilowatt of electricity to convert 1 kilogram of plastic into 1 liter of oil, at a cost of around US $0.25. The oil can then be further refined back through the same machine into gasoline, kerosene, and diesel. A small amount of ash is left over, and the off-gasses are turned into CO2 and water with a catalytic converter, or can be used to run a generator.
The process is called pyrolysis- and is a tried and true method for converting almost any type of material into energy. Material is super heated in the absence of oxygen- so does not combust, but vaporizes into gas. Since there is no combustion, the process is relatively clean.
Mark Morey and Glenn of SB Surfrider talk with Harry of E-N-ergy
Joining us for the demo were representatives of various interest groups in Santa Barbara, including the City and County solid waste managers. SWoBs is trying to bring together all of the players in our area who have the influence to bring this technology to our area.
Rod Sato of E-N-ergy in blue on left talks with (l to r) Carlyle Johnston and Mark Tautrim of SB County Public Works Waste Management Division, and Eric Lohela, Environmental Specialist with the City of SB Recycling and Trash Division. In the background are Russ Teall of BioDiesel Industries and Micheal Chiacos of the Community Environmental Council.
Santa Barbara County just recently put out a bid for waste conversion technologies, as our landfill is over 50% capacity and we need to start looking at alternatives to dumping our trash into a hole in the ground. This process seemed promising, with a City employee stating he was "Cautiously optimistic."
The Blester Be-h desktop unit
The oil is visible as the upper dark layer of liquid in the cylinder on the right
While this technology is not a silver bullet for the issue of marine debris, it is a start. The real value of this process is to demonstrate that plastic is a resource, even that which cannot be recycled, like all those silly bags of corn chips and candy bars.
Furthermore- we are not implying that we should continue to use more and more plastic because we can convert it to fuel. This technology offers one solution for plastic that is already in circulation, particularly that which is circulating the globe in the ocean. We must also continue to look at replacing plastics with other biodegradable or benign materials, like wax paper.
If we as humans can shift our perception of “waste”, we can create jobs that clean up the planet. If we consider our trash as treasure, people will think twice about throwing things “away”, wherever that is.
Read more about Blest machines and the process at E-N-ergy's blog: