Plastic Shopping Bags Can Be Converted Into Fuel And Other Petroleum Products, Researchers Say

By Josh Lieberman on February 14, 2014 6:39 PM EST

plastic bags fuel
Plastic shopping bags, scourge of tree branches and landfills, can be turned into fuel, researchers say. (Photo: Flickr: katerha)

It's been a quite a week for plastic bag news. First we found out that bees use plastic bags to build their hives, and now comes news that plastic shopping bags can converted into fuel. In a report in the journal Fuel Processing Technology, scientists from the University of Illinois detail how the common plastic bag-billions of which are created and released into landfills every year-can be harnessed to make everything from diesel to natural gas to engine oil. 

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"You can get only 50 to 55 percent fuel from the distillation of petroleum crude oil," said study author Brajendra Sharma. "But since this plastic is made from petroleum in the first place, we can recover almost 80 percent fuel from it through distillation."

But don't just go jamming plastic bags into your gas tank; there's a process here. That process is called pyrolysis, which, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, "is the heating of an organic material, such as biomass, in the absence of oxygen. Because no oxygen is present the material does not combust but the chemical compounds...that make up that material thermally decompose into combustible gases and charcoal." The researchers say that their plastic bag conversion process uses far less energy than it produces (the method would be sort of useless otherwise, of course). 

The researchers were able to blend up to 30 percent of their product with regular diesel, which they said presented no compatibility problems. "This diesel mixture had an equivalent energy content, a higher cetane number (a measure of the combustion quality of diesel requiring compression ignition) and better lubricity than ultra-low-sulfur diesel," said Sharma. "It's perfect. We can just use it as a drop-in fuel in the ultra-low-sulphur diesel without the need for any changes."

Changing plastic bags into fuel could be quite a good way to reuse the pesky things, which can have disastrous impacts on the environment. As Sharma points out, bits plastic bags often reach the ocean, where birds, marine animals, and other creatures end up ingesting them. Turtles are in particular danger of eating plastic bags, as they mistake them for jellyfish; plenty of other creatures cab become entangled in bags, too. And of course, plastic bags are not biodegradable, so they can take anywhere from 500 to 1,000 years to break down. 

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