The RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies' Blog


Re-creating Oil: Technological Advances in Recycling Plastic

From oil to plastic and back to oil.

I couldn’t believe my eyes when I first came across this video of a Japanese scientist discovering a method to convert plastic back into its original raw material source, petroleum. Clearly, as it turns out, this is not an illusion, but rather a sign of sheer innovation.

This invention is apparently not new, as such technology has also been created in the United States. Environ Inc. has created its Environ Oil Generator (EOG), which is said to be able to convert one ton of waste plastic into approximately four 42-gallon barrels of high quality, synthetic light to medium oil. Moreover, as opposed to the cost of USD 70 per barrel for conventional oil, converting plastics into oil is estimated to cost a mere fraction of about USD 10 per barrel.

There are indeed various advantages to such technological advancements:-

Firstly, a primary advantage of this invention is the reduction of waste, particularly with the emergence of “throw-away” consumerism couple with relatively low rates of recycling. In Japan, plastics make up at least 30% of household waste. In 2008, the United States generated 250 million tons of waste, out of which plastics made up 12%. As a result, landfills have been filling up rapidly leaving little space for future waste disposal, causing some countries to resort to sending their waste to neighbouring islands. Furthermore, the invention also gives some hope to addressing some of the most ignored global waste problems, such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Secondly, the invention serves to improve access and affordability of oil. While there are efforts to introduce renewable sources of energy, the dependence on oil, is unlikely to change substantially in the short to medium term (especially for much of the developing world). As seen from the video, the invention has been most beneficial to less privileged communities as it provides them with a limited primary source of fuel necessary for development.

This invention also has clear relevance to urban poor communities in cities such as Mumbai and Jakarta. Given the emergence of cheaply mass-produced goods such as the Sachet product industry, the poor have consequently contributed to the growing amount of waste. For instance, instead of buying a big bottle of branded shampoo, less well-to-do folks can buy them in small amounts in plastic sachets. The accumulation of these plastic sachets have contributed to an increased amount of thrash, much of which has been a factor in exacerbating floods. Such an invention would therefore provide an attractive method of reducing waste while alleviating the threat of floods.

Finally, in line with addressing global warming, the invention also serves to assist in reducing the level of carbon emissions. Advocates suggest that burning oil would ultimately have a lower carbon footprint than plastics, which include the process of inceneration and landfilling.

While there are several benefits, this invention does raise the concern that this would possibly increase the demand for plastics. Given the ease of converting plastics into oil, would it be likely that people would purchase more plastic products in a bid to re-produce oil. Such a trend would clearly be against environmental advocacy on the need to adopt lifestyle changes such as reducing consumption and dependence on disposables.

All in all, it is a worthy invention as it provides some solutions for communities worldwide, and thus should be fostered with further investment.

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