Several companies are engaged in mining America’s rich plastic mines, hidden in landfills throughout the land, to extract the oil that these plastics were made from in the first place. Since many plastics are deemed as “unrecyclable” these endeavors come as a welcome change in that they could help reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil and diminish those landfills. Several environmental benefits might come from this.
Since 93 percent of plastics are not recycled, this landfill mass grows quickly, and often puts a burden on local municipalities and industries. Much of this waste plastic is sent to China, where it is burned, generating a high degree of toxic and greenhouse gases such as methane.
Agilyx, a start-up operation in Tigard, Oregon, offers one way to change these destructive patterns. Solid plastic waste, ground up and melted into a liquid, is condensed back into liquid form. The process then separates usable oil from other chemicals and contaminants.
Chris Ulum, CEO of Agilyx Corporation, says, “It’s the kind of plastic that you’re not allowed to throw in your recycling bin … unfortunately today, most of that gets sent to the landfill or incinerated.” As of 2011, Agilyx was making about 8,000 gallons of oil each week, each gallon produced from about 10 pounds of waste plastic, according to KGW-TV.
Agilyx claims its processes pull 60 barrels, or 2,400 gallons (16,800 pounds at seven pounds per gallon) of oil from every 10 tons of plastic waste. When we consider that Americans toss millions of tons of waste plastics each year, and since all these processes extract about 70 to 80 percent in oil by weight, there could be as much as 35 million tons (10 billion gallons!) of oil trapped in the plastic we otherwise throw away.
Detractors may note that we end up with the old, dirty, carbon-based fuel, but note that we do dispense with hauling oil from distant lands, refining it, and carting it to our local gas stations – an energy intensive process. A distributed network of smaller refineries, working with local or district garbage haulers, could localize energy production and reduce the carbon footprint involved with the current method of extraction and distribution. It’s not a perfect solution, but one that doesn’t require a new infrastructure.
Ulum told this writer that Agilyx’s process, “specifically designed to handle difficult to recycle plastics,” can deal with any plastic waste, including those with contaminants such as, interestingly, residual lubricating oil in oil containers, or additives such as silicates used in manufacturing some plastics. This reduces sorting before processing and makes it more likely that people will recycle since they won’t have to sort things.
Ulum sees the reduction in landfills, lower carbon footprint for the lifecycle of plastics that get recycled and processed, and reduced greenhouse gases from oil produced this way. The firm’s web site explains, “As realists, we know that the 325 billion pounds of industrial and municipal plastic finding its way to landfills each year will not be eliminated overnight, nor will the annual need for over 31 billion barrels of crude oil disappear in the near future,” but also expresses confidence that their technology can alleviate many of these problems and empower communities.
We end with an idyllic vision of a smaller, more portable machine that could help in many third-world countries. Akinori Ito is CEO of the Blest Corporation, and seems to be tireless in promoting his vision for energy security for Japan and developing countries. His involvement and education of children is inspiring.
Several companies here and abroad are developing similar systems based on the same technologies, and one YouTube entry shows a home-made version that looks as though it were adapted from a backwoods still. What we need and may get is a new kind of white lightning for our future energy needs – a concoction made of recycled plastic rather than fermented barley and rye.