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Byron Shire
September 26, 2021

Could pyrolysis help solve the plastics crisis?

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Philippe Dupuy at the Lismore Environment Centre. Photo David Lowe.

Philippe Dupuy from the Lismore Environment Centre thinks there is a role for pyrolysis technology in dealing with the global plastic waste dilemma, with new technology making it possible to turn plastic waste into a useful resource.

Mr Dupuy told The Echo, ‘There are machines that use pyrolysis, which is a process of heating something without oxygen. The end result for plastic when it’s heated over 400 degrees is the molecules break down and separate into the original components, which is oil basically, and gas.

‘So the machine captures the oil and the gas; the gas is used to keep the heat going in the pyrolysis process, and the oil can be filtered into diesel which burns better and is less polluting than ordinary diesel, kerosene or even petrol.’

Mr Dupuy said that by converting plastic into valuable resources it avoids plastic products ending up in incinerators, which pollutes the air, or damaging the ocean, or being buried in landfill, ‘which is a total disaster’.

Plastic crisis

‘The thing to remember with plastic is we’ve got this process of out of mind, out of sight, but this doesn’t work with plastic because it breaks down into micro and then nano particles,’ said Philippe Dupuy. ‘And that gets into the food chain and is then absorbed by other creatures, including ourselves.

Pixabay.

‘We’re consuming it. Some people say we consume a credit card’s worth of plastic monthly. It’s shocking, and there’s also the wildlife that gets affected by it,’ he said.

‘We’ve got whales dying on our beaches with guts full of plastic. The same with turtles and fish and also the plankton, which ingests those nanoparticles as well.

‘It’s a crisis actually, like climate change, and if we address it we’ll have less pollution too. People are dying from cancer and other diseases caused in large part by pollutants in the environment.’

Big and small pyrolysis machines

Mr Dupuy explained that industrial size plastic conversion machines are already being used overseas. ‘Yes, China were using pyrolysis machines as one of their processes with our recycling. There are machines so big they can handle ten tonnes of plastics a day. That’s quite significant.’

Although these machines are in operation in places including China, Japan and the Congo, there are none in Australia in the moment.

Small hydrolysis machine from Japanese company Blest. Photo supplied.

In terms of introducing the technology to the Northern Rivers, Mr Dupuy said his focus is on much smaller machines which are available and affordable.

‘That’s right, and that’s what i want to concentrate on,’ he said. ‘I think I can raise the money to get one. It’s about $17,000.

‘It can only handle about two kilos of plastic at a time, but that’s substantial over time. That includes plastic bags and all sorts of stuff.

‘What I envision is we buy machines like that, then go in connection with schools so we can demonstrate how plastic can be turned into a valuable resource,’ he said. ‘That gets in the mind of children that plastic is not waste, it’s a resource, so you pick it up, not chuck it!’

Spreading the word

Mr Dupuy’s plan is to initiate the pyrolysis project through the Lismore Environment Centre, then form a small company, then go looking for local councils and people in the education sector to spread the word, as well as doing public demonstrations.

So far he’s has floated the idea to Lismore City Council, and to educators, who are keen to learn more. ‘There are people who are interested in putting some money in it. I’m certainly going to do it,’ he said.

Down the track, Mr Dupuy says there’s the potential to install a larger machine in the area, which could handle things like tyres, and bulk waste.

Industrial sized pyrolysis machines are capable of handling tyres and large plastic items.

‘Some of these machines are so big that they have a big tank where a tanker truck could actually pick up the fuel and take it away to be sold or used,’ he explained.

‘The basic unfiltered oil from the large machines can be used in factories where their machines are tougher, but for use in cars and so on it needs to be refined.

‘But this small machine, amazingly enough, you get to select what you want, oil or kerosene. Different levels of heat create different products,’ he said.

Education to avoid contamination

Philippe Dupuy told The Echo, ‘When I came across this I thought, what are we doing? We should be using machines like that and educating people. At the moment we still have people putting rubbish in the bins that is contaminated. That is one reason why China refused to take our rubbish any more, because it’s so contaminated.

Lismore’s Mayor Vanessa Ekins and Philippe Dupuy collecting plastic rubbish in Lismore recently, as part of Spring Into Scavenge. Photo David Lowe.

‘The big thing for me is to raise the level of awareness in society about plastics. It’s not being taken care of with the processes we have, it’s unmanageable as it is, so we need to raise awareness for people to get more involved,’ he said.

‘In the future we could have these machines in small communities. If there were 200-300 people a machine like that would process their plastic waste.’

Mr Dupuy said the potential of pyrolysis machines was waiting to be tapped. ‘While many issues are divisive, this one isn’t! When you talk about plastic rubbish, everyone is traumatised by it. I refuse to buy strawberries in those little containers, because you never really know what happens to it. So there’s a real need for technology like this.’

You can get in touch with the Lismore Environment Centre via Facebook or email: [email protected]

Check out this video of plastic conversion via pyrolysis in action:


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7 COMMENTS

  1. Unfortunately pyrolysis also produces problematic emissions- which make it no part of a sustainable solution to the plastics issue. A solution cannot as a byproduct accelerate climate change. Curtailing fossil fuel extraction which are the feedstocks for plastic production are the solution. The damage to our health and that of the environment is already completely out of control. That is before you get to the issue of the other toxic components of plastic- BPA, BPS etc. Recommend visiting the https://zerowasteaustralia.org/about/ for better advice for solutions. We cannot burn our way out of climate change- sorry to pour cold water on your idea.

    • Thanknyou for your comments Matt, much appreciated. I have taken your advice and visited your site and I searched your network before approaching the media for an interview. All i found was a vague reference to pyrolysis classifying it at the same level as incinerators which are indiscriminate in its practices.
      Agree that ‘Unfortunately pyrolysis also produces problematic’ fossil fuel – ‘which make it no part of a sustainable solution to the plastics issue’. Firstly i am not claiming that pyrolysis is a final solution but only as an interim measure to clean up the environment. The byproduct of oil or diesel when refined is only putting to use what is being locked up in discarded plastic and when used for whatever purpose is only replacing whatever was going to be used , right? However my point is that we must educate our kids and the general public by getting them involved. Pyrolysis is the solution for the already discarded waste which is choking us. I am not an investor in pyrolysis machines and i am not promoting it as the problem solver for the future. The solution of course is to ban single use plastics, flimsy products, highly toxic plastics and so on until plastic is phase out.

      ‘Curtailing fossil fuel extraction which are the feedstocks for plastic production are the solution’ I’d love for that statement to be proven correct but is the government, specially the all powerfull US government going to stop the production of plastics?

      Yes! The damage to our health and that of the environment is already completely out of control but surely it’s time for a clean up no matter how imperfect the available solution is. If you do have one better can you please contact the writer and have an article about it? I could not find any, we cannot continue to debate endlessly while Rome burns.
      Philippe

      • Hi Philippe,
        No question its urgent. Thanks for helping promulgate the now vast information on deleterious health and environmental impacts of plastic to the public. Unfortunately pyrolysis is not a quick easy fix/part fix which everyone might hope for. The fix is to stop making more plastic and stop making toxic plastic. But there is more- Individuals can all take action to de-plasticise their lives. Stop taking plastic bags, stop buying food wrapped in plastic, stop buying drinks in plastic bottles, stop wearing clothes made of plastic (polyester etc), stop using disposable coffee cups, stop buying plastic food storage containers. Where demand diminishes there is a market force placed on supply, and thence production. Take care that your vote does not support gas extraction. Just like we can make renewable energy a global reality, we can also demand a de-plasticised future. No point just burning it into more aerial pollution- for what goes up, unfortunately, comes back down. best. Matt

  2. We all want a solution to the global plastic pollution crisis. However, Pyrolysis is most certainly NOT it! Pyrolysis is a classified incineration technology under both EU and US law. Industry proponents in Australia try really hard to rebrand pyrolysis (and gasification) technologies as something other than waste incineration so as to evade the associated strict industry regulation such technologies require, but you can put lipstick on a pig…its still a pig! And these technologies are real pigs! They entrench an unsustainable linear economy – the cause of our waste crisis – by hiding this waste at a time when we desperately need to stop making plastic. We then need to urgently redesign plastic for circularity (reuse, then recycling), we need to eliminate the toxics embedded in plastic and products and we need to implement sustainable zero waste city models that manage our waste more effectively without the need for uncontrolled landfills and incinerators. Investing in dirty pyrolysis incineration technologies is not the future for such an ecologically minded community as in the Northern Rivers region. This industry is also tied to the unproven agricultural soil amendment – biochar – also being heavily promoted in the region. Turning our waste through thermal technologies into a fuel (climate and toxic air pollution) and biochar (whether for agriculture or industrial co combustion) is not a clean, sustainable, renewable or safe plastic waste management plan. Its a con. Don’t be fooled good people of the Northern Rivers Region! Check out the independent science and analysis on this technology at the National Toxics Network Australia’s -Zero Waste Australia website. It fails to deliver on all grounds – environment, sustainability, economics and justice.

    • It is unfortunate that when concerned citizens join the fight against pollution the response from the experts is a tirade of toxic comments loaded with cliches instead of help and guidance.
      In this world where the elephant in the room is forever ignored by leaders signing Climate Agreements, while they can continue to pollute, bomb and ravage other countries that earns them a Nobel Peace Prize?

      And so we continue with our arrogance whilst giant whales die in agony on our polluted beaches.
      I am in no way doubting your knowledge and experience on the matter but isn’t it a little delusional to talk about Zero waste? Just like Zero tolerance isn’t this driving us to Zero results and creating false hope? If there is something we can be sure of, it is that this world is imperfect.
      The solution must be the least imperfect and if in the immediate pyrolysis is not a partial solution then what is?

      There are many genuinely concerned people who wants serious action to address plastic waste including rubber tyres which are building up at a tremendous rate while governments do little to address the problem except to ship it overseas as if there is another planet out there.

      There are no debates in the public arena on this issue and when there is, it’s almost always adverserial with winners and losers. Typical hubris! Make concerned people feel like useless idiots who have nothing to say or contribute. So please don’t shut down ideas, provide guidance and if you have a better solution please tell us about it.

      The NTN does a great job of highlighting the toxins in our environment and its work is to be applauded .

      I couldn’t agree more when you say ‘we need to implement sustainable zero waste city models that manage our waste more effectively ( no need since its zero waste) without the need for uncontrolled landfills and incinerators. But when you say ‘Investing in dirty pyrolysis incineration technologies is not the future, I agree but please explain how pyrolysis, a process that is more selective ( use only some type of plastic) and does not involve incineration is the same as an incineration plant that is indiscriminate and burns everything. The oil that is produced is fossil fuel, I agree, but its fuel that is trapped in waste and fuel used in lieu of not as well as.

      I also agree entirely that zero waste or more achievable little waste to be the ultimate goal but is that feasible in the immediate future? Plastic waste is everywhere in our guts as in the rest of the animal world. We need to act now. Pyrolysis is not the perfect or long term solution but it should or could be the solution we need right now. If not what should we be doing?

      If the government cannot ban single use plastic, flimsy plastic implements or even plastic toys until 2025 what do we do with mountains of rubbish? I would love to hear your solutions? Real ones!

      I don’t need to know about pigs the poor creatures have suffered enough as it is, it would be better to do a comparative assessment between incinerators and pyrolysis or provide us with some answers.

      I don’t want to sit back and watch some dumb show, i want to get up and do something and encourage our fellow citizens to do the same.

      The point of this article is to raise awareness and try and get kids and the public involved so we can create momentum for change. If people can see for themselves the process and its flaws then there’d be more engagement which can put pressure on governments to act and do something that is justice.

    • Hi Jane, that’s a lot of good you want to get out and I share the passion. Just to clarify, by definition pyrolysis is a closed system which is closed to atmosphere. The heat used to drive the pyrolysis can be from any source and could include solar collectors. It’s very common in industrial applications to change the chemical properties of materials so a well proven tech.

      The key to the solution of plastic pollution will be in the value put on the ‘resource’. Once oil production goes down and clean and efficient technologies are in place to process plastics there will be a natural drive to cleanup our world. Fingers crossed:).

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