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Another Voice: We should start turning our plastic waste into oil

By Frank J. Dinan

When Ponce de Leon sought the legendary Fountain of Youth, he had no luck. But he could find immortality today in his local supermarket by simply strolling through its produce department, where he would find free plastic bags, each weighing almost nothing, designed to be used only once, then disposed of. At the checkout line, Ponce would be offered more immortality in the form of additional plastic bags to put his already plastic-wrapped purchases in. Hundreds of years later, after all of our children’s children have died, his plastics would still be around.

Long-lasting plastics are environmentally undesirable, but they are so cheap, so convenient and so popular that they are not going to go away any time soon. Instead, plastic wastes are increasing and are now the most common form of litter worldwide.

In the United States, plastics are the fastest-growing component of our soaring municipal wastes, and, according to a 2009 Environmental Protection Agency study, only 13 percent of potentially recyclable plastics are actually being recycled. However, this situation could change drastically if plastic wastes were converted into valuable, useful oil. Technology exists today to accomplish this feat.

A U.N. University video that has gone viral on YouTube shows how simply many sorts of plastics can be converted into oil. Worldwide, particularly in Japan, many other plastics-to-oil conversion projects are under way. The Japanese Klean Industries Institute has established that the most commonly used plastics, polyethylene and polystyrene and many others, can be converted into diesel fuel.

The American Chemistry Council’s report, “Economic Impact of Plastics to Oil Facilities in the U.S.,” claims the widespread use of plastics-to-oil conversion technology would require hundreds of American facilities, add more than 20,000 jobs and be worth $9 billion to our economy.

Today, plastics are comfortable to use. The public seems largely unaware of the damage they cause, and how needless this is. As long as this situation exists, the advantages that plastics-to-oil technology holds are unlikely to be realized.

For this to change public awareness of and demand for this technology must increase, and a way must be found for users to be rewarded for the recycling of plastics. These things are necessary but they will not happen without government backing.

Plastics-to-oil conversion technology offers the promise of a cleaner environment and the promise that a valuable resource now treated as “just waste” can be changed into useful energy. However, only public recognition of what can be done, and demand that it be done, will make it happen.

Frank J. Dinan, Ph.D., is emeritus professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Canisius College.