A few days ago a trusted colleague, John Steiner, sent me an email thread that told the story of an interesting Japanese invention – a machine that converts plastic into oil. You can see a video for yourself if you click here.

This machine answers a question I have harboured for years, and that is: if plastic is made from oil, why can’t it be converted back to oil.  Voila it can be done!!

Steiner and his correspondents point out some interesting opportunities for such a machine:

” It is estimated that 7% of the world¹s annual oil production is used to
produce and manufacture plastic. That is more than the oil consumed by the
entire African continent. Plastic trash is also polluting our oceans and
washing up on beaches around the world. Tons of plastic from the US and
Japan are floating in the Pacific Ocean, killing mammals and birds.

“Akinori Ito, CEO of Blest has invented a machine that turns plastic back
into oil using temperature controlling electric heater. The interesting
thing he says in the video is how he uses the machine to teach people that
plastic is not waste, but a resource that can be reused. …

“The machines are able to process polyethylene, polystyrene and
polypropylene (numbers 2-4) but not PET bottles (number 1). The result is a
crude gas that can fuel things like generators or stoves and, when refined,
can even be pumped into a car, a boat or motorbike. One kilogram of plastic
produces almost one liter of oil. To convert that amount takes about 1
kilowatt of electricity, which is approximately ¥20 or 20 cents¹ worth. The
company makes the machines in various sizes and has 60 in place at farms,
fisheries and small factories in Japan and several abroad. Currently the
smallest version, shown in the video brief, costs ¥950,000 (US $9,500)…

“What makes this machine interesting

[to Steiner’s correspondent and me] is it’s small size and the way
Ito-san has travelled to places in the “2nd world” such as the Marshall
Islands to introduce adults and children to the idea that plastic can be a
resource.  While he mentions fueling cars in the video, which resonates with
first world car addicts … more important uses for this
machine [might include] …

“Putting one of these devices in a small community and feeding it with all
the trash that is presently either burned in an incinerator or is being left
in the environment – on the beach, along the road side, etc. – and using the
volunteer labor of the local people to harvest it.  The resulting oil could
be used as appropriate for each locale.  In the Marshall Islands, for
example, it might be used for running a village generator that provides
lighting and runs the village laundry, so that they no longer have to import
diesel. In colder climes the oil could be used to heat homes or put to other
use.  The unit is small, so adaptable to each particular local situation.

“In the long run, plastics will “dry up” since they come from our diminishing
supplies of oil to begin with.  Don’t think of this as a source of energy –
it isn’t – but as a form of recycling that gives plastic more value.   The
energy needed to make the machines themselves won’t always be there either.
But since the machine is used at a local level and not trying to power
“business as usual” forever, that would be OK.
Wouldn’t it be nice to use the plastic trash of industrial consumer
civilization to help ease the transition to a low energy future and clean up
our mess in the process?”

In his careful way, another of Steiner’s correspondent’s, Jim Fournier, points out the underlying energy equation of the machine.

“A barrel of oil is just under 160 liters, so maybe 150 kilos. At 650Wh per liter, that is maybe 10MWh of electricity per barrel. At $0.10/kWh that’s $100/barrel before capex. At cheap US electric prices it could look expedient at maybe $50/barrel. In most of the world, where unlike the US they do not have cheap coal power, electricity is considered the highest, most refined and expensive form of energy. In much of the 3rd world they must burn $6/gal diesel to generate electricity.

On the energy balance side, 1MWh thermal (1000kWh thermal) is 3.4 million BTU. For reference, natural gas in the US peaked at maybe $10/MMBTU (million
BTU) and is now closer to $5. To go from thermal to electric energy there is an efficiency loss, more at small scale, less at large scale. At high efficiency, 1000kW thermal might produce 500kW electric.

The 10MWh of electricity to produce that one barrel of oil from plastic will cost at least 20MWh of thermal energy, maybe 70 MMBTU of natural gas, or over 100 MMBTU of coal, to replace a barrel of oil that contains 5.8 MMBTU.

So, we only spent on the order of 10 times as much fossil energy to electrically pyrolyze the plastic back into oil.”

I shared this finding with my energy-expert colleague Graham Boyd from TetraLD in London, and Graham respectfully observed:

“I’ve long held that, since we need to burn a lot of oil in the incinerators
we’re using to dispose of hazardous waste, the best way to recycle most plastics,
is to use them instead of oil to power these incinerators. From an energy
side that is the most efficient across the whole system.

So this machine is a neat way of raising awareness of recycling, but
still more environmentally damaging than not using it!”

In addition to Graham’s concerns I wondered about the toxins that might be produced by Mr. Ito’s machine (as do respondents to the video above.) Before I could even further this information exchange about energy exchange I heard from a colleague in NL, Wout-Jan Koridon. He told me that he had met a friend, who is entrepreneuring with related technology in EU and he sees big city application opportunities. Wout-Jan notes that this entrepreneurial endeavour has been enabled through acts of trusts, shared principles and the effort to connect directly with other cultures.

So this story started out to be about understanding the opportunities, consequences and unintended consequences about energy recycling. It’s certainly a  great story about the synchronicities that can happen when someone takes an initiative to respond to one of today’s big hairy complex problems. We can see the upsides, the downsides, the insides and the outsides.

But, far more importantly, what I am glimpsing is an emerging path to an ecology of energy exchange. It is not straight and there are many uncertainties, ambiguities, perspectives, and unexpected consequences.In fact it is downright messy!! But when we study natural ecologies, that is exactly what we see as they are evolving into a new balance – lots of experimentation, trial and error and mess!!  So today I am enjoying mess as a harbinger of new energy exchange. In the not too distant future we may discover the clean and natural cradle2cradle cycle that enables oil to plastic to oil exchange (with perhaps a little help from other natural energy sources to power the cycle??).