Plastic waste is a huge problem in the world. Because of its durability, plastic waste accumulated in landfills and oceans tends to be trapped for centuries, causing a global environmental crisis. Even though we produce about 300 million tons of plastic waste each year, only 9% is recycled. But why are we only recycling so little? The reason is the current inefficiency and high cost of recycling plastic waste, resulting in a lack of incentives. Recently, researchers from Washington State University discovered a more efficient method that can drastically improve the efficiency of chemically recycling plastic waste.

Currently, there are three types of plastic waste recycling: mechanical recycling, incineration, and chemical recycling. Mechanical recycling is the most widely used recycling option, and it involves mechanically grinding or compounding plastic waste for re-use in similar products. However, this process will result in poorer plastic quality, and thus these recycled products are not widely used by industries. Incineration can convert plastic waste into heat and electricity, but the process may result in the emission of toxic pollutants such as acid gases and heavy metals. Therefore, the last option, chemical recycling, where plastics are converted to fuels, is considered to be the most promising plastic waste recycling process with the least adverse effects. However, the current technology of chemical recycling requires extremely high temperatures (over 300°C), which is expensive and inefficient. 

In order to improve this, these researchers investigated the effects of using different metals as catalysts, which are materials that can speed up the conversion process, while also varying other process conditions such as temperature and pressure. They discovered that, using a combination of ruthenium metal and carbon as the catalyst, they can convert 90% of plastic waste into fuel in just one hour, at a lower temperature of 220°C. This condition is significantly more efficient and cost-effective than the current chemical recycling standard.

If we continue our current rate of only recycling 9% of plastic waste, our ocean will contain more plastic than fish by 2050. This new discovery may provide a promising and more incentivized approach for ramping up the recycling process of plastics in the near future. These researchers are now working on trying to scale up and commercialize this process, which will be very useful in the global goal of reducing plastic waste. 

The first author of the study, Chuhua Jia, is a PhD student in the Department of Chemical Engineering at Washington State University.

Managing Correspondent: Wei Li

Press Article: Plastic waste can now be turned into jet fuel in one hour, The Academic Times.

Original Article:Deconstruction of high-density polyethylene into liquid hydrocarbon fuels and lubricants by hydrogenolysis over Ru catalyst, Chem Catalysis.

Image Credit: RitaE from Pixabay

36 thoughts on “Converting Plastic Waste into Fuel

    1. If I asked this of my students and their answer started with “Ban this and force people to use this”, would be an automatic fail. What you suggest is not a solution. It could mitigate adding to the problem, but the current situation remains the same. We (humanity) have mountains of waste plastics which if left alone will be with us and damaging our environment for the foreseeable future. We also have billions of people in need of readily available reasonably priced fuel, ideally sourced from something with low environmental cost and somewhere not controlled by murderous thugs and theocrats. If reprocessing plastics for fuel can act as a stopgap until things like EV’s are as ubiquitous as internal combustion engines, then it should be employed. While limiting the use of petroleum based plastics.

      1. Moonshine plastic.. Distilation and cooling of gases into seperate liquids. In this case you would basically be boiling each part out at a seperate temp. rate. This would cause a longer “cook” time but would allow mitigation of most acid gases. One problem i see as of now would be the fuel source you would ideally want an electric induction heating element.
        I could see an adaption to my earlier comment where an ingenuitive person could make a setup for this… On a small scale. It might be able to supplement the fuel supply you consume, but i doubt you would be able to use it primarily.

    2. Not really. The best solution is to have young social media influencers make plastic-eating challenges. Our resolute millennials will munch those 300 million tons of plastic in live streams.

      1. Honestly yeah hemp is so much better for everything! From building homes, making paper, and making fuel that’s actually better and quicker to maintain don’t get me started on products shampoo? Body lotion? Bath bombs? Food? Drinks? It literally can be implemented everywhere and with no repercussions it’s better than wood and it grows bigger and faster than it too compared to waiting 10+ for a proper mature tree it’ll merely take a few months for the hemp to reach it’s mature state, but there’s also people out here making renewable fuel resources out of everything I seen a piss engine that runs off of your own urine, I’ve seen a water engine running off of purely water, and I’ve seen the hemp engine as well and their is countless others doing this and most of these guys aren’t from the us where we have an abundance of things people in Africa and middle eastern Europe where everything is scarce are making these things how are we so advanced yet not at the same time over here in America? Honestly I digress but still hemp is better tho lol

        1. Necessity is always the mother of invention. From the greatest recipes to disruptive technologies, need will always drive innovation. The problem here in the U.S. is unchecked capitalist greed that will only advance the tech. they can profit from through control of the market. Everything else is an uphill battle.

    3. Bad idea. Plastics have to many uses in medicine, and manufacturing. You are only thinking of grocery bags and completely MISS the vastly larger picture of the use of plastics. It would be neat to see you use paper for baby bottles, or paper to seal low temperature pipes. The methods of turning plastics in to usable petrol is a better idea. Broaden your knowledge base Kim. Consume useful knowledge, theory and practice to be better equipped for life.

    4. Small scale wood gasification has been viable for, from what I understand, 150 years. (1). “more than one million wood gas vehicles were used during World War Two” (2). Small scale gasification for home power generation is not yet, but could be, far more efficient at curbing pollutants, and global warming, than industrial plants using the same methods, and already are an improvement over many other sources of power, including in some instances natural gas, etc. (3)
      Give us the plans for a small homestead level plastic digester that won’t blow up, or leak toxic / planet warming gasses, and I suspect that I won’t be alone in producing my own fuel for my own vehicle from every scrap of waste plastic I can get. I certainly won’t be alone. Besides environmental motivation, survivalists, those on a tight budget, and those who have already been through disasters (hurricanes here) that cut us off from fuel supplies, will definitely pay attention. I’d speculate that the impact of 1 million residential plastic gasification projects, funded by 1 million people determined to stay up and mobile come heck or hurricanes, might get this done faster than you could build an industrial plant to do the same thing, but there is plenty of plastic for both. If these were as readily available as the annually new style of propane powered barbecue pit I would love it. We have no recycling in rural America.
      1. Mother Earth News:
      2. Amusing Planet:
      3. Science Direct:

    5. Go outside and look at your car or better yet next time you fly check out the plane your in next time you fly and then consider if everything made from plastic was replaced with paper.

  1. Great job for publishing such a beneficial web site. Your web log isn’t only useful but it is additionally really creative too.

  2. Plastic wastes have been a major environmental pollutant in many developing countries .This Technology will be of great advantage to this menace.

    1. I think great idea might just work harness heat to make power & recycling plants efficiently improvement and offset challenges ..

    1. I think it would be beneficial to create a simplified and cheap version of the chemical recycling equipment. This way, undeveloped and developing countries can utilize this technology. Many don’t have proper waste management. Also, they have a lower cost of labor where they may be able to profit from this system (at least until they become more developed)

  3. The only problem I see with this is would it be cost effective?
    That would be the deciding factor if an entity would actually start a business doing this type of work. You would think petroleum companies would work towards this goal, but I see no incentive for them while they still have natural raw oil available. I think it’s a great alternative to help with plastic pollution although it still adds to the air pollution. So we’re still screwing up our planet in some ways.

  4. Has anyone studied what happens to PE or PP when put under extreme heat and pressure in a vacuum for a long period of time?

  5. The petrol being produced after plastic conversion is it usable in car engine as well?
    Has anyone studied it’s effects in engine operations and what’s the difference between the organic oil and this

  6. Burning the plastic in kilns and for power is a great way to get rid of plastic. Instead of dumping it in the ocean and landfills. They need to work on better ways to clean and recover fumes and gases.

  7. From a business perspective;
    1. How clean would the plastic have to be to burn in the process?
    2. How much would a system like this cost to purchase and operate?
    3. Would it be feasable to charge companies to take there waste plastic, then sell the oil to offset the cost to run the equipment?

  8. Its fascinating and wonderful to read these ideas. With over 139 million metric tons of single use plastic in 2019 and growing every year we have to utilize as many approaches as we can. It has taught me to be a wiser consumer, wonderful at repurposing, and makes me look at possible recycling strategies that make sense. The recycling into building supplies appeals to me most. Having dug up a 20 year old “dump site” on our property there were discarded clothing articles and plastic twine that showed no decomposition, makes me wonder if our housing demands could benefit from this source. For me our planned obsolescence is detrimental in the general , if we could make building supplies last as long as our trash!!! Our energy needs seem to grow exponentially so recycling for fuel seems to be a natural, if we don’t increase other pollutants seems a great alternative.

  9. Bugs. We can make bacteria that will convert plastic into biodegradable gunk. If we are clever the bugs will emit a burnable gas as a byproduct.

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