30 January 2016 12:44:08 IST

Reuse and recycle: Turning plastics to fuel

An Indian company has found a way to reduce the cost of converting plastics to fuel

Many people who are environment-conscious decry the use of plastics. I don’t, even though when it comes to environment-consciousness I yield to none.

The reason is simple. You can’t deny to people what technology makes available, and what is cheap and convenient. Plastics are all of that, as we all know very well. A lot of greens will tell you not to use plastics, but you don’t have to listen to them. In fact, we Indians already use very little of the stuff in our lives. These figures give you a comparison: Americans consume 109 kg of plastics per person; Europeans do 65, the Chinese 45, and Brazilians 32. Indians consume 9.7 kg per person. How much lesser can we do?

True, plastics do have the potential to harm the environment, by not decaying and becoming part of soil — they are not biodegradable. But, the trick is to use plastics but make sure they don’t muck-up the environment. To use a cliché, why throw the baby out with the bathwater?

It is a $23 billion industry, a big provider of employment and all that, and it is not wise to ditch it without trying to save it.

Reuse and recycle

Fortunately, unlike, the instance of coal, you can do something about plastics; such as convert them into fuel.

In fact, ‘conversion’ is quite not the term for it, because plastics are fuels. In case you need to refresh your high school chemistry, all the plastics that we use – thin and flexible one such as carry bags; harder stuff such as buckets, electrical insulation, water pipes, tables and chairs – are all derived from the same basic source — crude oil.

Since plastics are essentially made through a process of polymerisation, which is to form long chains of carbon atoms with hydrogen and other elements sticking to them, the way to get plastics back in fuel form is — yes — de-polymerisation.

Cost of development

Scientists have long been working on cost-effective de-polymerisation. You must have often heard ‘plastics to fuels’. The reason why all plastics are today not collected and made into burn-able liquids has been the high cost of doing it. However, it is common wisdom that if you keep at doing something, you are bound to crack it.

A few commercial entities claim to have cracked it; one of them is an Indian company called Ventana Cleantech.

Ventana’s founder, Amit Tandon, says the technology the company has developed in-house, can produce fuels equivalent of high-speed diesel which will cost far less than the diesel. The raw material for this? Plastic waste picked up from garbage bins.

Usually, you collect plastics and put a certain quantity of them into a machine and tap out the fuel at the other end. Then you do the next round. This ‘batch process’ doesn’t work well for costs. Ventana, according to Amit, has invented a ‘continuous process’ – you keep feeding plastics in one end and keep getting the fuels at the other. In this technology shift, lies the secret to cost reduction.

Ventana’s demonstration near Chandigarh walks the talk. The process has been audited by Mott McDonald who is a globally respected name. Now, Ventana wants to put up another plant near Hyderabad, three times the size of the Chandigarh pilot plant, in collaboration with Ramky Environment, a city cleaner.

Better fuels

Plastics-derived fuels, let’s call them PDF, put the polymers into another round of use and replace fuels from oil refineries. They are also said to be better fuels because, unlike diesel and petrol, they have no sulphur. As such, the PDF are an emerging industry.

Therefore, companies such as Ventana Cleantech ought to be watched closely. For sure, there will be problems. Making PDF is not easy (if they were, there would already be a thriving industry, no?) and several companies have attempted and met with partial or no success. One example that comes to the mind is that of a US-based company called Plastic2Oil Inc., founded by a controversial Canadian called John Bordynuik. John has as many detractors as friends and is either praised to the skies for his pioneering efforts or decried as a fraud.

However, the very emergence of companies like Plastic2Oil Inc. and Ventana Cleantech and the density of narrative around them point to one thing: PDF is an emerging industry.

So next time someone tells you not to use plastics, don’t stop using them. Just make sure you keep the discards separately — you could be making money selling them.