Thursday, September 17, 2009

From Oil to Plastic (and Back Again?)

In a recent post on Green Inc., the environmental blog of the New York Times (feed available to the right), Matthew Wald describes how one entrepreneur has found a niche in the market for disposed plastics and is closing the production loop of this petroleum-based waste. After years of research and testing, a Washington DC based sustainable waste management company called Envion has developed a way to return plastic to its original form - crude oil (or at least something resembling oil). Wald explains the significance of this technological breakthrough:

"Entrepreneurs have been trying for years to turn low-value wastes into high-value products. Waste plastic is among the lowest in value, and gasoline or diesel fuel the highest, but machines that carry out that conversion usually consume a lot of energy and get gummed-up by leftover material that they cannot convert."

Using a new technique - heating the plastic with infrared energy - the team at Envion has made it feasible to extend the life cycle of plastics. This reduction process produces a murky, yellowish fluid which can be mixed with additional components and sold as gasoline (see image below).

This innovation has significant implications for the world of plastic consumption. As I wrote in a previous post entitled Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, disposable plastic water bottles are a considerable contributor to carbon dioxide emissions. I also referenced William McDonough's book Cradle to Cradle, in which he advises altering the traditional production process from a manufacturer --> consumer --> landfill (or cradle to grave) system to a manufacturer --> consumer --> manufacturer (or cradle to cradle) system. With the invention of its new plastics converter, Envion has done just that. As Todd Makurath, the company's director of global brand management explains, “This could be transformational in how we handle plastics."

Of course this new technology is not a perfect solution. As Kert Davies, research director at Greenpeace accurately points out in this Washington Post article: "To make it big, this company needs people to waste plastic." He adds, "We need to question whether we should be using plastic at all to begin with."

Even though Davies has a valid argument about the fundamental fault of plastic consumption, it is unrealistic to disregard initiatives such as this one on a matter of principle. The fact is, even without Envion's prodding, people are discarding plastic products at an alarming rate (roughly 50 million tons of plastic waste are generated annually in the US). By taking on the task of reforming this deeply flawed and broken system, Envion provides a creative short-term solution to a very systemic problem. It is obviously not the only piece of the puzzle, but it's nevertheless an important one.

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