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article imageFrom plastic to oil: Making waves with a machine and a vision Special

By J Ocean Dennie     Nov 16, 2013 in Environment
Vancouver - Upgyres, a Vancouver organization, is looking to use the famous Blest machine that converts plastic into oil as a tool to clean up the North Pacifc plastic garbage patch. My interview with its director sheds light on this enterprise.
I will never forget the first time I read of the North Pacific Gyre almost a decade ago. Alan Weisman, in his provocative book entitled The World Without Us, devoted an entire chapter to the relatively recent discovery of the great plastic garbage patch now floating out there in the ocean. The book had estimated its size to now be equivalent to that of the entire continent of Africa! I recall how absolutely stunned I was with that fact and how strange it was that I had never heard of this phenomenon before. I thought it had to be fiction, an exaggeration at the very least, however, after some online research, it was quite evident that this was a very real issue. It was suddenly clear to me that this could very well be the single greatest environmental disaster to have befallen our planet. Perhaps what startled me even more was that, at the time, no one, with the exception of the individual who discovered it, was working toward resolving this crisis at sea. A disaster such as this barely made any waves in the media and most people I spoke to had never heard of it either.
Fast forward to the last couple of years and the story is quite different. A number of enterprising initiatives are currently underway to determine the best method to collect this plastic. One such attempt that has garnered a lot of attention lately is the Ocean Cleanup Array led by Boyan Slat, a young Dutch engineering student at Delft University of Technology. His concept proposes the ingenious use of booms to collect the waste plastic and divert it to processors fixed to the sea bed. In 2012, the Ocean Cleanup Array was awarded Best Technical Design at the Delft University of Technology, and took second place at the iSea Clash of the Concepts sustainable innovation award by the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment.
Another initiative, this one spearheaded by a Vancouver organization called Upcycle the Gyres Society (UpGyres), is taking a different approach to the collection and processing of plastic floating on the surface of the sea and the water column beneath. Their plan is to upcycle the plastic into something useful again and make it profitable by using a very special machine that converts plastic waste from the ocean into crude oil at high seas. It feels like the future is finally here. The Blest machine, as it is known, is named after the Japanese company who produces it, and over the course of a few years, this invention has raised eyebrows worldwide.
After attending a recent public demonstration of the machine in action, I had a chance to speak with Jose Luis Gutierrez-Garcia, the director of UpGyres, and learn more about what it can do and what the organization plans to do with it.
For those who aren't very familiar with all this, what does this machine do and why is it such a big deal?
A tremendous amount of plastic waste ends up in the oceans killing marine life. The circular oceanic currents known as gyres eventually dump that waste back onto our beaches. Our organization, UpGyres , intends to take that discarded plastic, and using the Blest machine, upcycle it into a useful resource, such as crude oil, and low-emissions fuel. This is important because transforming plastic into oil is a way to actually be able to utilize something that has been traditionally considered garbage and not very valuable. We intend to recover the energy and attach new value to this previously overlooked resource and bring it back into the life cycle.
Is there any waste by-product that results from this process?
When considering discarded plastic containers, what you are going to have in addition to the plastic is labeling which is essentially paper for the most part and food remnants. So all you get, as far as waste goes, after putting plastic into the machine, is burnt ash, which is known as bio-char. This bio-char can be disposed safely and utilized in gardens and compost bins. With the larger commercial machines, you can actually sell it as pet coke which the cement industry uses as an aggregate for cement.
So there is no waste whatsoever from the actual plastic itself?
No, none at all. The entire quantity of plastic gasifies and then cools off and condenses into sweet light crude oil.
This sounds like quite an involved process. Are there any noxious or hazardous emissions that can escape into the air? Is it safe to operate this machine indoors?
It is absolutely safe to operate indoors since it is a closed loop system, completely self-contained. The only emissions from the process are carbon dioxide and water, which are quite minimal. To give you an idea of exactly how little carbon dioxide it produces, it is estimated that humans exhale over 800 grams in a day while the machine only emits 550 grams. If there ever was a problem with the machine itself, it would automatically shut down since it is all computerized and a warning signal would indicate that something is wrong.
Can I dump what is produced straight into my car?
The plastic crude can be mixed 70/30 in a fossil diesel engine. For a gasoline car, you need to refine the crude into gasoline. The crude derived from plastic waste is like diesel and a gasoline engine would not like that.
So it sounds like the technology has not evolved to the point where we can just dump the plastic oil straight into our gas tanks as is?
What comes out of the machine is crude oil, so no, it needs to be refined to some degree. As with conventional crude oil, this oil can be further refined to extract what is needed. The light crude oil coming out of this machine is a mix of diesel, gasoline and kerosene and can be poured directly into your diesel vehicle as long as you blend it. You can blend it with bio-diesel or fossil fuel.
Does this affect the performance of the vehicle in any manner?
No it does not. In fact, the plastic crude oil 'consumed' by diesel engines as well as the refined plastic gasoline are both much cleaner in the sense that they are virtually sulphur free, thereby producing fewer harmful emissions.
Where did the idea to use this machine to clean up the plastic trash in the ocean come from?
In March 2012, I attended a Z day (Zeitgeist day) in Vancouver which is a conference devoted to exploring human capability and our use of resources. The founders of the Zeitgeist movement, based on the movie, held their annual conference in Vancouver, and so I decided to attend. At the event, I met a man from the US and we discussed a variety of topics. In the midst of those conversations we complained about the extent of plastic pollution in the ocean - strongly worded, I might add. At some point, he mentioned how the Japanese had developed a machine to convert plastic into crude oil. At first, I couldn't believe it, but after researching further into it, I was convinced, and so that chance encounter led to where we are with this to date, committed to finding a solution to the environmental crisis currently underway in our oceans.
How is your organization looking to accomplish this gargantuan task of cleaning up the plastic from the ocean?
Through gradual steps and in stages. At this point, we are in the midst of proving that this machine is up to doing the job, on land. Since we have a model size only suitable for demonstrations, we have partnered with Recycling Alternative, a local recycling company in operation since 1988, to utilize a commercial-sized machine to process land and ocean-based plastics, at their hub located in the False Creek area of Vancouver. The company runs a co-op, producing their own bio-diesel for their members. They are providing us with the space at the Green Hub to be able to operate and are generously supporting our initiative with a financial contribution toward operations, including helping out with trucks, administration, labour and so forth. Following this, we want to take these machines aboard ships out into the ocean and prove that they can really work. The additional challenge is to develop the capacity to collect the plastic in quantities sufficient enough to make it feasible, so that we are not spending more energy than we are creating.
In this regard, UpGyres intends to launch a feasibility study. We have applied for a grant from Sustainable Development Technology Canada. The study will consider what it will take to collect the plastic, collect it safely so that we are not harming marine life and collect it in sufficient quantities that we can actually create enough oil to have a profitable operation. An additional concern involves collecting the plastic without interfering with plankton which is sometimes the same size or even smaller than the photodegraded flakes of plastic. How are we going to separate the plankton from this microplastic? In some parts of the ocean now, there are six times as much plastic as there is plankton! So any marine animal that depends on feeding upon plankton cannot possibly filter out the plastic flakes. It is a significant challenge but it is something we are working on and it is a priority of this study.
And so at this point, are you looking for investors?
Yes, we are looking for assistance to purchase, install and operate a machine at the Green Hub for one year, and for consortium partners for our Ocean Plastic Cleanup feasibility study. .
Why is this such an important issue for you personally?
Besides the fact that we are killing marine life with our nonchalant attitude toward waste and how we dispose of things, it is clear to me now that we can actually derive value from this waste and regenerate the marine environment. We want to demonstrate and prove that in order to be profitable and to progress (in line with the dictates of the economy), we do not have to be destructive. We can align ourselves with nature again. In nature, there is no waste that remains in perpetuity. Every single organism uses the waste of other organisms. We as humans have not been able to utilize very well what we perceive as waste and to benefit from it.
How have people reacted to your demonstrations? What concerns have people raised? What have people been curious to know about the machine?
After seeing the demonstration machine in action, the vast majority of responses have been quite positive. Some were concerned with whether there were any harmful emissions, while others were more interested in the amount of energy required to take oil out of the plastic. Basically, when the machine produces one liter of oil from a kilogram of plastic, it requires one kilowatt per hour of electricity. With the smaller demonstration machine, the process takes three hours to produce a liter of oil from a kilogram of plastic while the commercial machines do it in an hour. Thus, the ratio ends up as 1:1:1:1. The amazing thing is that there are then almost eleven kilowatts per hour of usable energy in a liter of plastic oil that has just been produced. It took one kilowatt to produce it and you end up with something that can in turn offer you even more kilowatts, so obviously it is very energy efficient.
It is also important to note that the machine does not burn plastic – it gasifies it. There is a big difference between incineration and what we are doing with this machine, essentially converting the plastic into a gaseous state.
Is the machine able to handle all types of plastic?
It can handle plastic numbers 2, 4, 5 and 6. These include typical single use/throw-away items such as straws and stir sticks, containers made of foam, grocery bags, and dry cleaning plastic. What cannot be converted is PVC and PET plastic (which unfortunately includes plastic bottles). When PET is gasified, it converts into fifty percent water and totally affects the quality of the oil produced. When PVC is gasified, it produces chlorine which the system does not handle at this time. The technology is always improving and eventually it will be possible for the machine to have PVC tolerance.
PVC and PET sink while the other plastics float. To process the PET that we will inevitably collect, we have partnered with Leisure Activist Group to convert it into a clothing line.
Excluding this limitation then, what other drawbacks are there to the plastic-to-oil machine?
There are none whatsoever. In my conversations with officials from various cities trying to raise awareness around the machine, a recurring concern I have encountered, naturally, is protecting the welfare of citizens and not producing harmful emissions. There is this impression that the machine burns the plastic, releasing toxic smoke or fumes, so the drawbacks, in a sense, are the current lack of information and education with respect to the technology, and the incredulity of the part of some individuals to accept that the whole thing is a very simple process, basically a geological process mimicked by technology. Conventional crude oil is the result of a decomposition process involving a tremendous amount of pressure and heat, lasting millions of years. It only makes sense that since oil is being used in creating plastic, that plastic can then in turn be transformed back into oil. All the machine does is recreate that geologic process on a much smaller scale.
As an end user, I see no drawbacks. What is the drawback when you are actually taking garbage out of the ocean, beaches or diverting it from landfill sites and converting it into something useful in a very safe and effective manner? Detractors have also taken exception to the fact that the plastic is being converted into combustible fuel for engines instead of being recycled. The two options do not exclude each other and need to be used in tandem. There are some plastics that have reached the end of their cycle and cannot be recycled any further. These are the plastics from which we need to recover the energy that is stored in them.
If this machine is so amazing, why have they not been mass-produced yet and available on a larger commercial scale?
We wouldn't be at the forefront of this technology and of this idea if there were millions of machines out there already. However, they are being mass-produced. There are over sixty of them in Japan alone and there are other technology providers with their own patents and variations on this technology including JBI who are converting Crayola’s markers into fuel, and Agylix out of the United States. So they are being mass-produced and will continue to be mass-produced. Some of the various machines have larger area footprints than others, however, the appealing aspect of the Blest technology is that it is modular and scalable so that you can process plastic starting from one kilogram every three hours all the way up to machines handling twenty tons in a day.
The main obstacle to a viral widespread appeal at this point is lack of knowledge about the technology. People are just basically unaware of what it can do. I have spoken with intelligent and educated individuals, including recyclers, who are convinced that this technology is not possible. I think when an industry works with certain assumptions for so many years, it is very difficult for them to move beyond these assumptions and the 'institutional inertia' that can hobble innovation. I talked to one recycler on the phone and explained how his business could benefit directly from utilizing the plastic waste in his remote area of the province rather than shipping all that plastic away and how he could make money off of it. He just couldn't believe it. His response was 'It sounds like magic to me' and he hung up on me.
Yeah, I'm sure you have encountered people who have felt that this is just too good to be true. For many people, seeing is believing, so where can people witness this machine in action or learn more about its feasibility through firsthand accounts?
For people in Vancouver and the lower mainland, they can visit the UpGyres website to learn of upcoming dates and places where we will be demonstrating the machine. For instance, in late September, we were invited to participate in the launch of “Around The Dome in 30 Days”, a month-long, family friendly science festival at Telus World of Science; the response was overwhelmingly fantastic.
The machine remained on display until late October in the Our World: BMO Sustainability Gallery where people delved into how our choices can create a sustainable future through the exploration of electricity, water consumption and waste and how our everyday decisions can affect the world around us. We are also working on an event we'd like to hold regularly called Cafe Scientifique, which would essentially be an informal discussion on scientific subjects, providing layman insight to the general public from an expert panel into issues of popular interest, in turn provoking questions and attempts to provide answers to those questions.
In the Yukon, the first commercial machine in North America is in operation at the P&M Recycling depot in Whitehorse. Andy Lera, chief executive of Rising Sun Innovations took the idea to the Cold Climate Innovation Centre, who partnered with the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency to purchase the $200,000 machine. Lera also sits on our Board of Advisors at UpGyres. P&M Recycling is now successfully utilizing the machine to convert plastic waste into oil, instead of having to pay to ship the city’s recyclable waste 2,370 kilometres to Vancouver which is, as you can imagine, extremely costly.
The oil derived from the plastic is now being used to cover the $18,000 heating bill for the facility itself, and also used to fuel a diesel engine. The latest monitoring has shown the efficiency of the machine to be better than they expected. It is using just less than 0.9 kw to turn 1 kg plastic into 1 litre of oil. It has been working out so well for them that they plan to upgrade to a larger machine in the near future. The Yukon News wrote an article about this and you can check out the link at plastic-to-oil-machine-comes-to-whitehorse. You can also visit Rising Sun Innovations’ website for photos and news on how the machine is working out and what kind of modifications to the machine were necessary to accommodate for the cold climate of Northern Canada Rising Sun Innovations.
How can people get involved with your initiative?
I would love it if people would like to learn about the technology and find out for themselves that there are no drawbacks in this system. From our point of view, we see all the positive that this machine can do; it has a huge role to play in the future. It would help if people can tweet about it to spread the word and visit our facebook page and website to donate much needed funds in order to continue our important work. upgyres
More about north pacific gyre, north pacific garbage patch, upgyres, blest machine, Plastic
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