Every year, over one trillion plastic bags are used around the world. The average American consumer alone uses 300 annually. This ubiquitous item started out as a convenient and sanitary container for food, produce, liquids, chemicals, and waste. Plastic bags reduce paper use and use less material than comparable boxes, cartons, and jars. They are light, strong, and cheap. Today, however, their sheer number has caused major environmental problems. Most are not recycled, but thrown away, packing up landfills, clogging drainage systems, polluting the ocean, and killing wildlife.
Now, researchers at the University of Illinois and the US Department of Agriculture are working to turn plastic shopping bags into fuels, including diesel, gasoline, and natural gas. Because the bags are made from petroleum, researchers use a process called pyrolysis—heat applied in an oxygen-free chamber—to convert the bags into various crude-oil distillates. This process produces more energy than it consumes. The fuels it produces include a form of diesel that blends well with conventional diesel and that is also compatible with biofuels. Returning plastic bags to petroleum and then converting that material into fuel is a great example of a sustainable, innovative solution to a basic sustainability problem, made possible by new technologies undreamed of when the plastic bag was introduced.
I’m John Howell for 3BL Media.