Is Plastic To Oil A Step Forward For The Circular Economy?

Dow Chemical discussed and answered questions about its Energy Bag pilot project in Citrus Heights, California. The project involved collection of plastics that generally can’t be recycled for transformation into synthetic crude oil. The chat featured Neil Hawkins and Jeff Wooster from Dow, and sustainable business expert Andrew Winston.

So, does a plastic to oil project like this represent a step forward in circular economy practice? Is this a sustainable way to extract energy from materials that would likely end up in a landfill otherwise? Dow, along with partners the Flexible Packaging Association and Republic Services, certainly think so, and made their case during the chat, as well as in the video presentation on the pilot project:

It’s an interesting idea: why not recycle these materials into energy sources? The process for doing this is established and pretty clean itself: pyrolysis speeds up the process of decomposition with the application of heat. But as you might imagine, not everyone’s convinced that plastic to oil has a place in the circular economy. One message we saw multiple times throughout the chat:

Just to make sure we’re on the same page, pyrolysis is not the burning of plastic… but, as GAIA pointed out repeatedly during the chat, the synthetic oil produced is burned. In a sense, this is still using fossil fuels (because many plastics are made from oil or natural gas)… just after they’ve been converted to other forms. (And, disclosure: we’ve published guest posts from GAIA in the past). And, of course, all of that recycling requires energy, too.

Still, I’m not against this process: keeping plastics that can’t be recycled out of the landfill is definitely a step forward, as is the “reuse” of fossil fuels that have already been extracted and put to use. But, as we’ve noted over and over again, all waste to energy projects have to be examined critically…

I’m definitely interested in your feedback on this one: is plastic to oil conversion like this a viable long-term strategy for recycling plastics? A good short-term practice while we move away from oil and gas based plastics? Let us know what you think.

Bag bans create opportunity: So, how do you deal with dog poop when plastic shopping bags get banned in your locale? Chicago-based entrepreneur Jennifer Blaese saw the opportunity to finally sell her GreenLine biodegradeable poop bags in her home market after a ban on bags from big box stores went into effect this month. (via Waste Dive)

Teenager awarded for e-waste water filter: Next time someone grouses about “those damn kids,” point them to the story of 18-year-old Perry Alagappan, who just won the Stockholm Junior Water Prize. After seeing the impact of e-waste on water supplies during a trip to India, Alagappan created a cheap water filter that removes heavy metals… and he’s keeping it open source to ensure that it gets used wherever it’s needed.

Featured photo credit: Screen capture from “Citrus Heights Energy Bag Pilot Program Overview” video

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