A team of chemists at Purdue University found a way to convert a common type of plastic waste, polypropylene, into gasoline and diesel-like fuel, according to Motherboard.
The researchers heated water to between 716 and 932 degrees Fahrenheit, reaching a phase known as supercritical water, and added polypropylene plastic. Within a few hours, depending on the heat level, the plastic turned into oil, according to the research published in the journal ACS Sustainable Chemistry Engineering.
Polypropylene is a highly durable, heat-resistant type of plastic that’s often used to make lids and food containers.
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If this method becomes viable on a large-scale, it could provide companies with an easy way to reduce plastic pollution, a target of the United Nations’ Global Goal 12. In fact, the researchers claim that up to 90% of the world’s polypropylene could be converted into fuel each year through this process.
The glaring downside of the enterprise is that it creates a fossil fuel that will likely be sold for use. As a result, greenhouse gas emissions could be added to the atmosphere when the oil byproduct is burned for energy, intensifying climate change.
The researchers note that the product will meet a temporary market demand and could incentivize companies to do a better job collecting their products for disposal. After all, plastic pollution has become an urgent environmental crisis and polypropylene accounts for roughly a quarter of the plastic waste found in the world’s landfills, Motherboard notes.
Plastic waste disposal, whether recycled or thrown away, does not mean the end of the story,” Linda Wang, lead author of the report and a chemist at Purdue, told Motherboard. “Plastics degrade slowly and release toxic microplastics and chemicals into the land and the water. This is a catastrophe because once these pollutants are in the oceans, they are impossible to retrieve completely.”
In recent years, scientists have devised unique ways to break down and reuse plastic.
These efforts are part of a broader movement to reduce plastic waste around the world. Since 1950, more than 9.2 billion tons of plastic have been created, 6.3 billion tons of which have been thrown away, unlikely to ever be recycled.
The world’s oceans have been especially harmed by plastic.
Each year, an estimated 8.8 million tons of plastic enter the world’s oceans, which is like dumping a garbage truck filled with plastic into an ocean every minute, where it poses deadly risks to marine life.
The long-term solution to this crisis will be entirely new and biodegradable alternatives to plastic. In the meantime, existing plastic just might have to be boiled into oil.