Which eco-dreams will fuel the solutions of tomorrow? The climate change challenge has put fire in many bellies. It’s inspired the imagination of people all over the world. And well it should! Our future depends on those clever ideas and ambitious visions.
But not all eco-dreams work out the way we expect.
A Brilliant Idea
Back around 2009-2010, a Japanese scientist-inventor named Akinori Ito developed what he hoped could be a solution to two problems: the global ballooning of plastic waste, and the fact that petroleum production was controlled by a small number of countries who’d formed into a cartel to collude on prices.
Plastic is made from petroleum. What if he could devise a practical way to use thermochemical decomposition – a process called pyrolysis – to retrieve useable petroleum from waste plastics? The earliest online references to Ito’s process that I could find date to about 2010. He created a “home pyrolysis unit,” which he called the Blest Machine. It could be used on a consumer level, and dreamed of scaling the process up. He formed his Blest company for that purpose.
As Michael Luciano described the process in Design World, Feb. 21, 2017, “Plastic waste is placed into a large bucket inside the machine, where the temperature inside slowly rises to melt and eventually turn the plastic into a gas. Upon entering its gaseous form, the plastic passed through a tube into a water-filled container, where it cools and forms the oil. The final product can be burned in this form, or further processed into gasoline, diesel, or kerosene.”
Wow! Talk about an eco-dream with potential! Even if it just stayed on the household level, perhaps people could form co-ops to collect enough gasoline, kerosene, or other petroleum products to create a supplementary resource. Unfortunately, the most recent reference to the Blest Machine or Ito’s process that I could find is from 2017.
An Eco-Dream of Energy Independence for the USA
Back in 2015, we were still talking about a future in which we might become energy-independent. Hydraulic racking had begun to be deployed widely enough to prove its worth in that respect . . . and to raise a whole bunch of questions about “What is it doing to the groundwater?” And “How can it be a coincidence that we’re having earthquakes in fracking country?”
My focus in the blog post then was the opening of the Bakken Formation, which was experiencing boom times in 2015. Still reeling from the Great Recession, people were flocking there for good-paying jobs – then arriving and discovering there was no place to live and the winters were colder than they could possibly have imagined.
Eco-Dreams of an Oceanic Application
I first learned of the Blest Machine through an online video in 2014. At first I was dubious. It sounded too good to be true. But I checked into it and discovered that a lot of people were taking it seriously. After I’d originally reposted the video, I wrote an update and posted that on my blog in 2015.
In my blog post, I speculated about scaled-up applications that might help to deal with ecological obscenities such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. In passing I mentioned that a young engineer (named Boylan Slat) had proposed ideas about how to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and other global gyres, which also are collecting plastic waste.
Speculating as Science Fiction Writers are Known to Do
In my post, I asked a question: Could the pyrolysis process of Akinori Ito be combined with cleanup ideas such as those of Boylan Slat, to both supply the need for energy independence from the oil cartel and deal with plastic waste?
“Yes, yes, I know,” I concluded my post back then. “I’m WAY over-simplifying. My idea is impractical for thousands of immediate reasons. But what if they can be overcome? The key to any innovation is first to think of the idea, then solve the problems that currently make it impractical. Simple? Easy? No. Worth considering? We won’t know till we consider the possibilities for a while.”
Well, it’s Been a While. Where do the Eco-Dreams Stand?
In my 2015 post, I reported that Boylan Slat was planning to launch his first efforts through his organization called The Ocean Cleanup “next year.” So, then, what’s “the rest of the story”? As far as I can tell, The Ocean Cleanup is going strong. Their objective is to clean up 90% of floating ocean plastic pollution. They’re now actively collecting waste plastics from all five major ocean gyres.
Since the first effort, they’ve learned a lot and refined their techniques for tracking, sourcing, and collecting plastic waste. They’d love to tell you all about it (and show you why your generous donations would be put to world-saving use). They’ve also branched into the much knottier problem of river cleanup.
Oceanic Waste Management
Inevitably, of course, there’s a question of “what do we do with it once we collect it?” They most emphatically don’t want to hand it off to irresponsible “recyclers” like those who helped create the problem in the first place. In 2020 they launched a proof-of-concept project, The Ocean Cleanup Sunglasses. This sold-out prototype demonstrated that, “plastic caught in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch . . . can be recycled into high-quality consumer products.”
However, their specialty and strong point is collecting the trash, not recycling it. “In the future, we no longer intend to create our own products; instead, we will work with partners to develop products using The Ocean Cleanup Plastic. This will allow us to focus on our core mission of cleaning up.”
How About Energy Independence?
Since 2015, the United States has indeed achieved energy independence on the fossil fuels front. According to Forbes author Robert Rapier, the US has been a net exporter of coal and gas for a while, now. That status does not appear to have changed, even during the Pandemic. Rapier points out that the Energy Information Administration (EIA) determined the US to have been energy independent in 2019 and 2020. So, since before the Pandemic hit. He also offers a primer on what “energy independence” means as he uses it.
The US is able to cut off Russian oil imports, unlike some European countries that are dependent on Russia for gas and oil. Unfortunately, we’ve continued to flirt with other oil-producing autocrats, and our national energy sources still remain all too heavy on the fossil fuels. Mr. Biden recently opened up some federal lands for gas and oil leasing, against future need, which I wish he hadn’t.
The most depressing part is the continued heavy emphasis on fossil fuels – which are causing our problems in the first place!
But What Happened with Pyrolysis?
Those eco-dreams have a murkier story. My 2015 blog post mentioned several startups that seemed to show promise. One was a company in Utah called PK Clean. It later changed its name to Renewology, still making efforts to scale up the chemical recycling of plastic.
Renewology and the City of Boise, Idaho formed a partnership im 2018 to turn waste plastics into fuel. They introduced what they called an “EnergyBag” program to collect consumer plastic waste at people’s homes, and bag it separately so it could be used for the program. By 2019 the “EnergyBags” were piling up, but not being used for fuel. In 2020, Boise renewed its “EnergyBag” program, but with a different destination planned for the plastics collected.
PK Clean/Renewology also launched a partnership in Nova Scotia with a company called Sustane Technologies in 2017. There was a glowing update in 2018 about how they were seeking approval to convert plastic waste to fuel. An update overview from Sustane in 2020 does not mention PK Clean or Renewology, but Sustane does claim to use “a pyrolysis system, purchased from a Utah company” to create synthetic diesel fuel. So, maybe it worked, there.
Investigative Reporting Tells (Most of) the Rest
I finally found my answers about PK Clean/Renewology from a Reuters investigative report published in 2021. Pyrolysis, at least as Renewology attempted to implement it, had proved unsustainable. Plastic waste is more easily burned to create energy, but there are toxic byproducts, and burning is still a contributor to the greenhouse effect.
Of the Blest Machine in 2017, Luciano wrote, “there are some relatively unanswered questions regarding the true extent of the Blest Machine’s reduced CO2 emissions and what happens to discarded chemical compounds during the conversion process.” Any inefficiencies an “discarded chemical compounds” would tend to scale up with attempts to use the technology at scale. At a guess, that’s probably what happened with the Boise and Nova Scotia efforts.
Keep on Following Eco-Dreams
The hard truth is that not all promising technologies work out – certainly not immediately, and maybe never. If you’d asked me to bet, in 2015, whether Akinori Ito’s pyrolysis or Boylan Slat’s eco-dreams to clean up the ocean would succeed better, my money would’ve been on the pyrolysis.
Which goes to show that science fiction writers only look like prophets of the future later, if they guess right!
The fact is that either initiative could have failed, depending on luck, management decisions, technical problems or a thousand other things. And either initiative also could have succeeded brilliantly, as it appears The Ocean Cleanup mostly is. Were both worth trying? Absolutely.
Eco-dreams can’t turn into a better future for us and our planet if we don’t even give them a try. No new technology or process is easy at the start, or it would already have been done long ago. And maybe we shouldn’t give up too soon, even on something that looks as if it failed. Sustane Technologies is keeping its cards close to its chest at this point, but there may yet be hope for Akinori Ito’s plastic-to-fuel pyrolysis eco-dreams, too.
Many thanks to Be An Inspirer, for the Eleanor Roosevelt quote. All montages are Jan S. Gephardt’s fault. The upper photo of Akinori Ito’s Blest Machine comes from MB&F, AKA Maximilian Büsser & Friends (on display with a green background). The other two came courtesy of The Civil Engineer. Deepest gratitude to both!
Photos of the Bakken Oil Fields at their height in the early 20-teens came from a variety of sources. I’m indebted to Zack Nelson/AP, The Williston Herald, and The Spokesman-Review of Spokane, Washington (where I found it), for the photo of repair work on a pipeline leak near Blacktail Creek outside Williston, ND in 2015. Many thanks to Gregory Bull/AP and NPR for the 2011 photo of the company-owned “man camp” (long, straight, prefab rows), also near Williston. Deepest gratitude to Tim Smith Photography, for the photo of row after row of new mobile homes installed near Watford City, ND. Also to KERA News for the gorgeous, uncredited photo of a pump-jack at sunset near downtown Sidney, Montana in 2015.
Thank you very much to Harvard University’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Their 2018 blog post “The Plastic in our Oceans,” provided the illustration-map of the Earth’s five ocean gyres. And I continue to be grateful to the Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2017 competition and to photographer and copyright-holder Justin Hofman, for permission to use his “Sewage Surfer” on my blog, including my original post.
So. Much. Plastic Waste!
Many thanks to Public News Service for the photo of the huge pile of plastics in Boise, Idaho in 2018. At that point they still had faith in Renewology. The Ocean Cleanup provided the photo of their “catch of the day,” a mountain of recovered plastic waste on “System 002’s” deck in October 2021. And I owe The New York Times thanks for the background photo of colorful plastic straws. It originally illustrated a story about their use by hotels and resorts.
Thanks to a whole lot of people for the “Renewology Woes” montage! The background photo, from 2019, is a literal wall of “Energy Bags,” from Reuters and photographer Brian Losness. Thank you! Big piles of “Energy Bags” were still sitting around in Boise, long after the bloom was off the Renewology rose. Eventually, those bags did produce energy, BTW. They even did it through a form of pyrolysis: they were burned to power a cement plant. Yes, burning produces thermochemical changes. Unfortunately, also toxic wastes.
Reuters and photographer George Frey also provided the 2019 photo of the Renewology sign in front of the company’s Utah building. I was somewhat amused to note that there are only two changes in 2019 from the photo of the PK Clean sign in 2017. Thank you, Waste Dive, for that photo. It’s credited to PK Clean, but we know they’re not answering anymore. The only differences in the photo from 2019 were the words on the signboard and the mounds of plastic waste. The building, and even the sign’s support structure, look exactly the same.
And Yet, Possibly an Eco-Dreams Grace Note
Finally, I’m also grateful to Sustane and the CBC for the 2018 photo of the Sustane Technologies plant. It’s located 25 km north of Chester, Nova Scotia, close to the Kaizer Meadow landfill, which supplies it with waste. In a 2020 article it says it turns about 90% of the municipal waste from the landfill into reusable materials. About 50% becomes pelletized biomass. And somehow they’re turning the 20% of their feedstock that’s plastic into synthetic diesel through pyrolysis.