With High Gas Prices, Could Turning Plastic Waste Into Fuel Solve America's Energy Problems?


With the job market improving, America’s energy security has returned as a campaign focus. President Obama’s visit last Thursday to the Keystone XL pipeline site as part of his two-day energy tour highlights the continued debate over domestic oil production. Meanwhile, prices at the gas pump continue to rise.

Perhaps the answer lies in plastics: bags, milk jugs, bottles, and sporks.

Entrepreneurs are developing the technology to convert tons of plastic waste into barrels of gasoline, manufactured right here in the United States. There are a few competing technologies out there, but essentially the process heats up plastic waste, breaking down long hydrocarbons and reforming them into shorter chains, and turns the waste into oil. The process can be efficient, with some converting close to 90% of plastic into fuel. It is also highly profitable – it costs $10 to create a barrel, or about $100 worth, of fuel. And this fuel can be cleaner than what you find at the pump.

There’s no shortage of plastic, either. It is estimated that Americans use 102 billion shopping bags per year, and that was just a fraction of the 31 million tons of plastic waste created in the United States in 2010. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, this plastic use represents 12.5% of all trash, and of that, only 8% is recovered for recycling. The vast majority ends up in landfills or oceans (just look at the Great Pacific Garbage Patch).

As the battle over domestic oil production and the buildup of plastic waste continues, this could be an interesting solution for both issues. There are several startups out there racing to be the first to dominate the potential plastic-to-fuel market. JBI Inc. was recently spotlighted on NPR, while Envion was ranked #5 in Fast Company’s Most Innovative Energy Companies of 2010. Waste Management, already a big player in the waste management market, teamed up with five other firms to invest $22 million in Agilyx, a plastic-to-fuel company that was chosen for one of the 2011 Global Clean Tech 100 Awards.

It's important to remember that oil is still a polluting energy source, and this won’t be the end in our quest for green and renewable energy. Still, the plastic-to-fuel technology makes use of non-biodegradable waste that has already filled our planet, and does so with a production method that would be a cleaner alternative to drilling and fracking. By converting our leftover plastics into oil, we will have a more resourceful and self-reliant way to fuel our country.