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An MIT Spinoff Company Resolves the Global Plastic Problem

In today’s society it is hard to imagine a world without plastic. Nevertheless, it is a relatively recent material, with industrial-scale production starting in 1907. Its characteristics (durable, light and cheap) have made its production over the past ten years reach the equivalent of its entire production during the last century and it is estimated that it could triple between now and 2050.

A Century of Plastic

In today’s society it is hard to imagine a world without plastic. Nevertheless, it is a relatively recent material, with industrial-scale production starting in 1907. Its characteristics (durable, light and cheap) have made its production over the past ten years reach the equivalent of its entire production during the last century and it is estimated that it could triple between now and 2050.

Photograph: courtesy of PK Clean.
Photograph: courtesy of PK Clean.

The Problem

According to the American Environmental Protection Agency, in 2012 the United States produced 32 million tonnes of plastic waste and they only recycled 9% of it. The data for Europe is very similar. To these significant figures must be added the world population growth forecast for the next few years (more waste) and the increase in plastic production in both developed and developing countries.

The problem is that the plastic waste can last for hundreds of years. Not only is it found on land, but there are also tonnes of plastic polluting the oceans and seas. The environmental impact of this waste is worrying as it has multiple effects, among the most dangerous of which is the contamination of the food chain. In addition, the use of non-recycled plastic, mainly comprising polystyrene and polypropylene, is on the rise. As this waste is not profitable for recycling companies, it ends up on rubbish dumps and does not decompose.

The Solution

A spinoff company from MIT has found a viable and profitable solution to the global problem of plastic waste. PK Clean was founded by Priyanka Bakaya for this very purpose. The system they have developed decomposes non-recycled plastic into oil and uses part of the gas which the decomposition produces to make the system operate.

Ms Bakaya explains the logic behind the solution: “Plastic comes from oil to begin with, so it makes sense, instead of landfilling plastic, to convert it back to usable fuel. The goal is to end landfilled plastic waste forever — not just domestically, but also globally.”

Above: Photograph of Priyanka Bakaya during Fortune magazine’s Great Green Ideas Awards. (Source: Flickr Photograph by Stuart Isett/Fortune Brainstorm Green).
Above: Photograph of Priyanka Bakaya during Fortune magazine’s Great Green Ideas Awards. (Source: Flickr Photograph by Stuart Isett/Fortune Brainstorm Green).

How It Works

The system derives from a process called catalytic depolymerisation in which heat and a catalyst break down the plastics into crude oil (70-80%) to sell to the refineries. Similar techniques have been developed before, but they were expensive and energy-inefficient, partly because they used batch processing in which the reactors cooled down and had to be heated up again for the next batch, a very costly process. With PK Clean’s continuous system, the gas generated in the process maintains the reactor’s heat, significantly lowering energy consumption and costs. Aside from the 70-80% which becomes oil, 10-20% of the decomposition of the plastics becomes hydrocarbon gas and a small amount becomes char residue.

10 Tonnes of Plastic per Day Converted into 60 Barrels per Day

PK Clean’s first large-scale commercial plant is located in Salt Lake City, partnering with Rocky Mountain Recycling, Utah’s largest recycling company. Operating continuously, the plant can convert up to 10 tons of plastic per day into 60 barrels of oil, with zero toxic emissions. Produced at around $35 per barrel, the oil is sold to a nearby refinery for around $100 per barrel. PK Clean plans to partner with other recyclers across the nation and, eventually, to begin implementing the system in developing countries.

Help for Companies which Generate Plastic Waste

This is news which we celebrate and which you can learn more about by visiting PK Clean’s website, which also invites organisations which create large quantities of plastic waste to contact them to assess the situation and subsequently offer assistance to process the waste.