There’s (black) gold in them there landfills… or maybe not

Paul Raven @ 15-12-2010

Well, perhaps. Via William Gibson and a fair bit of Googling (as the Flixxy page he linked isn’t exactly the sort of thing I’d take on trust): Akinori Ito is the CEO of Blest Inc., a Japanese company that sells a device for turning recyclable plastics into petrol. In fact, this story’s been around since 2009; here, OurWorld2.0 republishes it in response to a renewed interest courtesy a mildly-viral YouTube video:

Blest’s conversion technology is very safe because it uses a temperature controlling electric heater rather than flame. The machines are able to process polyethylene, polystyrene and polypropylene (numbers 2-4) but not PET bottles (number 1). The result is a crude gas that can fuel things like generators or stoves and, when refined, can even be pumped into a car, a boat or motorbike. One kilogram of plastic produces almost one liter of oil. To convert that amount takes about 1 kilowatt of electricity, which is approximately ¥20 or 20 cents’ worth.

[…]

Continually honing their technology, the company is now able to sell the machines for less than before, and Ito hopes to achieve a product “that any one can buy.” Currently the smallest version, shown in the videobrief, costs ¥950,000 (US $9,500). [Note of 30 November 2010: Blest informs us that, since we visited them last year, improvements have been made to the machine and the price is now ¥106,000 (around US$12,700) without tax.]

So far as I can tell from sitting at a keyboard, this is a real working product, though I’m rather surprised it hasn’t been bigger news. Even so, I find my cynical side wondering whether this is some sort of snake-oil gig; as pointed out in the comments in a few different places covering the story, “1kW of electricity” is a unit of power, not energy, and without knowing how long it takes to reduce that kilogram of plastic to “crude gas”, it’s difficult to get any idea of whether there’s any real gain to be had from this particular recycling process.

I rather suspect that if this process were even vaguely profitable at scale, we’d have heard a lot more about it already, and would have people knocking on our doors offering pennies for our recyclable plastics. I have no doubt the gadget works as advertised, but I’m suspicious that it would take a long long time to claw back the purchase price once you factor in the amount of electricity it consumes.

Don’t get me wrong: I want this to be everything it seems to be. I just doubt it actually is.


Recycling the Pacific Trash Vortex into an island

Paul Raven @ 15-07-2010

I don’t know whether or not Kay Kenyon heard about this before writing her Shine anthology story “Castoff World”, but if not, the similarities are uncanny. A Dutch firm of architects have proposed a project to turn the Pacific Trash Vortex into a habitable (and indeed arable) sea-worthy island, simply by recycling in situ all the plasticky crap that’s already there [via SlashDot]:

The Pacific Ocean trash dump is twice the size of Texas, or the size of Spain combined with France.  The Pacific Vortex as it is sometimes called, is made up of four million tons of Plastic.  Cleaning it up is going to cost a lot of money and require a great deal of either scooping up the plastic and shipping it back to shore, or some sort of onsite recycling for building something like Recycled Island.

One of the three major aims of the project is to clean up the floating trash by recycling it on site.  Two, the project would create new land for sustainable habitation complete with its own food sources and energy sources.  Lastly, Recycled Island is to be a sea worthy island.

[…]

Further aspects of the island would be: the creation of “fertile ground” from compost toilets.  The island would also be non-polluting, using natural resources.  Recycled Island would be 10,000 Km2 or the size of Hawaii’s main island.  It would be self-sustaining and not dependant on other countries.  The urban housing would be designed for future climate refugees. These are very lofty goals but if carried out, Recycled Island would turn the trash into a money making enterprise rather than an economic sink hole.

Hmmm… an ideal candidate for city-state status, then. But any nation-state along the edge of the Pacific is going to be a bit uneasy about a recycled island that can move itself around at will, and which isn’t dependent on anyone for anything. Compare and contrast to The Raft from Snow Crash: with the latter, refugees want to invade, assimilate themselves; on the other hand, a self-sufficient pirate island will attract away your own malcontents, weaken your authority.

Recycled Island is a great idea from a technological perspective, but the geopolitics are too horrifying to contemplate. Think of the way Antarctica is being scrabbled over, thanks to its oil reserves; the very same economic pressures and scarcities will eventually make a huge lump of plastic floating in the sea look like a natural resource well worth exploiting. But then, that might mean invading a moving country populated entirely by people displaced by climate change… so I wouldn’t plan for your invasion being a cakewalk if they’ve decided they want to stay.


A Most Fundamental Substance: Oil and Oceans

Brenda Cooper @ 23-06-2010

Every month, I spend about a week with an ear to the news, specifically sifting for ideas for this column. I like to plan around something that resonates with me. This month, I’m sick at heart about the catastrophic oil spill. It feels like death. But there are already a lot of people writing about it. Besides, it would make me sad to research it extensively. So I turned my attention to the oceans in general. I was surprised to find out how much they feel the same as the oil spill. But I’m going to write about them anyway. I normally hope you’ll enjoy my column, but in this case, I think I just hope you read it. It’s tough to feel enjoy news about our oceans right now. Continue reading “A Most Fundamental Substance: Oil and Oceans”


Fungus could clean up polluting plastics

Paul Raven @ 14-05-2010

Nature’s got a way, brothers (and sisters)… not only could we start using fungus as a building material, but it looks like we could use the stuff to leech Bisphenol A – the nasty compound in polycarbonate plastics – from waste materials, keeping it out of the ecosystem at large.

Of course, there’s no telling what might happen to mycelia fed a continuous diet of toxic chemicals. Perhaps it’ll get hungry, and start eating plastics we’re not yet ready to throw away…


Garage 3D printers working with ceramics, bioplastics

Paul Raven @ 17-02-2010

3D-printed clay vesselWatching the backyard fabrication and 3D printing scene is fascinating, not least because it’s developing so quickly – a mere pipedream just five years ago, but currently expanding its capabilities in leaps and bounds. One thing that will increase the versatility of these systems is a wider selection of materials with which to work… and while you can already print in sugar (with other foodstuffs remaining strictly hypothetical at this point), we’ve got people brewing up their own stove-top bioplastic blends [via BoingBoing] and tweaking their fabbers to work with clay [via Chairman Bruce; image clipped from linked article].

The former is promising because it gives hobby-level users the opportunity to work in cheap biodegradable plastics by using off-the-shelf ingredients that can be scored at the corner store (e.g. glycerin, vinegar); that recipe has a way to go before being usable, but you can bet your boots that other fab-fanatics will be working to refine it and sharing their results online… many eyes make bugs shallow, after all (though Microsoft’s Shawn Hernan would disagree). And being able to print in clay really opens up the arts & crafts market to the fabbers; consumer-level 3D design tools should lead to a minor renaissance in ceramics design.

I wonder if this will provide some counterbalance to the seemingly inevitable loss of jobs in the US due to the rise of robotic, computer-controlled and/or outsourced manufacturing? Short runs of custom designs (and those very simple products for which the current profit margins of Chinese made-for-export factories will not hold forever) would seem ideally suited to small local businesses based around a few fabbers, an oven or kiln and a finishing bench… and if someone can work out a way to scale down plastics recycling so it can be used to generate the necessary materials using locally-sourced waste, you’ve got a whole new economic sub-circuit operating at a local level.


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