Garbage To Gas; Scientists Turn Plastic Bags Into Diesel


Plastic bags are one of the most common forms of garbage, but what if we could convert them into back into petroleum based diesel fuel?

Before getting into the details, I thought a few mind blowing facts about the plastic bag industry might help put things into perspective. There are over…..wait for it…. 1 TRILLION plastic bags used worldwide each year. That’s well over a million PER MINUTE, and the equivalent of 120 million barrels of oil being used every year, just to get groceries from the store to your car. The US alone goes through 100 billion bags by itself, at a cost of around $4 billion annually. Plastic bags are the second-most common type of garbage in our oceans, leading to such atrocities as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The plastic used in these bags can take up to 1000 years to degrade, releasing harmful chemicals into the environment the entire time.

Dozens of major cities across the globe, including San Francisco and Mexico City, have instituted some form of a ban on plastic bags, while others have taxed their use. Environmentally friendly legislation will help in reducing our reliance on plastic in the marketplace, but it won’t help with an equally important problem; what to do with the trillions of bags we have already produced?

The University of Illinois is attempting to develop a solution to this problem by converting the bags into a plethora of petroleum based products, from diesel and natural gases to lubricants and waxes. The conversion is done by pyrolysis, which involves placing the bags into an oxygen deprived environment and applying heat. Project heads claimed that up to 80% of the fuel can be recovered with this method.

While this process has been used in the past to extract crude oil from bags, the team achieved a breakthrough by extracting the oil into multiple petroleum byproducts. Then, by combining two of these byproducts and adding an antioxidant, they realized the resulting product was capable of meeting the national standards for ultra-low-sulfur diesel fuels. Further testing revealed this plastic bag derived fuel had even better lubrication and combustion qualities than the #2 diesel it was compared to.

While turning plastic into oil isn’t exactly a new idea, this new development holds more promise than most. Plastic saves lives but it also takes an enormous toll on our world. It’s hard to drive down any street without seeing a plastic bag blow by, as they are one of the most common and harmful things we toss into the world, hundreds of bags waiting at the end of every grocery checkout aisle, awaiting an eternity of wasting away and poisoning our world.

Ideas like the Biofore Concept look to replace plastic with less harmful bio-composites, but we will also need ideas like these that will help reduce the amount of plastic bag pollution that has quickly become a part of our national landscape.

Sources: University Of Illinois | ReUseIt | Image: Julie McMahon

Zachary Coffey

I'm a sociable computer nerd who can't wait to see what the future holds. A passion for technology that changes the world helps me maintain an optimistic outlook for things to come.