Introduced in April of 2009, A machine called Blest converts three kinds of plastic back to useable oil. Small versions of the device look startlingly like the flux capacitor of the Back to the Future movies, but this is definitely not fiction.
Waste plastics, polyethylene, polystyrene and polypropylene, can be fed into a hopper at the top of the machine. Using heat produced by electricity, rather than a flame, the plastics are melted back into an oil product which can be used in stoves and generators without further refinement. Additional processing is required to make gasoline which can be used in cars.
One kg, about 2.5 pounds of plastic, will produce just under a liter, a quart, of oil. This costs about 20 cents (USD). No toxins are produced, as the temperature is low and controlled. The only byproduct is water.
To date, about 100 of the units are in operation worldwide, most in Japan, ranging in size from countertop models to pilot plants which can be used on farms, or at small industries. The smallest unit costs just under $10, 000.
Detractors argue that the plastics problem should be resolved by making less in the first place. However, there is already so much plastic in the waste stream, that this option does offer a way to extract more than one use from “garbage.”
The inventor, Akinori Ito, is passionate about changing the way people think about waste. He sees this as a way for people of many cultures to reclaim plastics that seem to appear, unbidden, even in third-world countries. Japan, where the Blest machine is built, is a country with a huge waste problem, and a need to import all their petroleum products, mostly from long distances. This technology is seen as part of that country’s solution.
Plastics which can be fed into the machine are:
- #2, high-density polyethylene (HDPE), which is used for milk jugs, shampoo and detergent bottles. Some shopping bags are #2.
- Polystyrene, a rigid plastic often used for construction components such as electrical switch plates. It is most often recognized in its expanded form, styrofoam, in products such as foam cups, plates, egg cartons, and most foam packing materials. In the USA, expanded PS is recycling #6.
- #4, Polypropylene (LDPE), most often seen in shopping bags, bread bags, etc.
The company's documentation says that the converter can not handle PET, #1 plastics, which are used in water bottles. But the video shows a recycling container for PET, which could be confusing. The video also shows #5 plastic (clear, thin and stiff), found in packaging for produce, cookies, etc, being fed into the machine. The on-line documentation gives better information than the video, but does not list materials by the US recycling numbers, so some clarification would be needed if a group purchased a converter.
The process of thermal denaturing of plastics is not particularly new. However, creating a way to do it simply and economically has been elusive. Perhaps the Blest machine is a big step towards solving part of the planet's ecological problems.
A video of the Blest machine in demonstration can be seen on YouTube under the name of Plastic to Oil Fantastic.