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Remarkable Research Turns Plastic Bags Into Petroleum Products

I hate plastic bags. No matter how many beautiful and bright purple reusable bags I buy, I nearly always forget to use them and walk out of grocery stores with plastic bags muttering angrily under my breath that I will never do this again. And then I do it again. I really have no clue what to do with plastic bags. Many of them are non-recyclable in my area, so should I try and reuse them at grocery stores or is that a little unhygienic? Should I just keep stocking them in my pantry until it explodes? Or as a last resort should I rustle up a DIY dog-clothing project involving plastic bags, my little dog Max and some sticky tape?
 
Luckily (preventing my dog from having to wear a home-made waterproof jacket) I stumbled across some breaking research that turns plastic bags into delightful petroleum products. A study led by Brajendra Kumar Sharma, a senior research scientist from the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC) at the University of Illinois, uses a previously tested method of pyrolysis (heating plastic bags in an oxygen free chamber) to turn plastic bags intro petroleum. The team then took a novel approach by going a step further to fractionate the crude oil into different petroleum products such as diesel, natural gas, naphtha (a solvent), gasoline, waxes and lubricating oils.
 
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Dheeptha Murali and Jennifer Deluhery with the plastic to oil reactor.
 
And what is my favorite part of this research? It works on almost all bags. Jennifer Deluhery, a process chemist involved in the new research describes: “We have tested this process using plastics number two, four and five. We are also interested in trying to recycle plastics with the number seven because they are considered to be very difficult to recycle. In choosing our plastics we have tried to take into consideration how ubiquitous they are and how easily they are recycled.”
 
This is great news for plastic bag haters around the world. But what does this mean for our environment? Currently according to the Environmental Protection Agency only 13% of the approximately one trillion plastic bags produced in 2009 were recycled in the US. Deluhery explains: “The remainder were disposed of in landfills, released into the environment as litter, or used in secondary applications by end-users eventually ending in landfills.” This is bad news for our future. Plastic bags take hundreds of years to naturally decompose, so they end up clogging municipal draining systems and end up in the oceans contributing to the Great Pacific Patch in the Pacific Ocean. They are also lethal to animals who ingest them or become entangled in them.
 
Trying to find a sustainable solution to plastic bag pollution sounds like a fulfilling job title. Deluhery explains: “I enjoy trying to look at materials that others might see as a problem…and make it into something useful. I like the puzzle of trying to make the science work and…look at systems in a different way.” The next steps of the project involve further testing. The team’s original experiments, also involving research chemist Dheeptha Murali, have shown that they get more energy out of the fuel than they need to make it. So they are testing the process on a larger scale to confirm their results.
 
When asked about challenges they may encounter, Deluhery explains that the collection and transport of the waste plastic material may prove to be difficult. But considering they have such an intelligent team on their hands, I think they will be able to find an innovative solution to whatever they encounter.
 
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L to R: Dheeptha Murali, Chemist; B.K. Sharma, Senior Research Engineer; Jennifer Deluhery, Process Chemist.
 

0ba8618 Aisha Tejani
Aisha Tejani is a contributing writer of Castagra Products, a storage tank and wastewater coatings manufacturing company that is highly acclaimed for its sustainable coatings and cold weather coating applications. Castagra products are NSF-61 certified and are used by the world’s top water and wastewater contractors.