WHITEHORSE – Diverting plastic from landfills and turning it into oil is no longer just a pipe dream in the Yukon.
A machine invented in Japan has been installed in a Whitehorse recycling plant that can chew through 240 kilograms of plastic every day and produce enough oil to heat about 70 homes.
The technology is suited to northern Canada, where most homes are heated with oil-burning furnaces.
The contraption, which is the first of its kind in North America, looks like a mad scientist’s workshop and takes over an area roughly the size of a pool table at the warehouse at P&M Recycling.
Plastic that has been cut into coarse granules is fed into a trough, moves through various tubes and chambers until it turns into a gas and is cooled.
At the end, a light-coloured oil drips from a spigot into a receptacle.
The machine processes about 10 kilograms of plastic, producing about 10 litres of oil every hour, and can run continuously.
The oil that comes out is a blend of gasoline, diesel, kerosene, and some heavy oils. It can be fed directly into an oil furnace, or could be processed further into something that could go straight into a diesel engine.
The only other byproducts include a tiny bit of carbon residue, carbon dioxide and water vapour. The carbon dioxide emitted is equivalent to about four humans breathing normally.
When Yukon innovator Andy Lera first heard about the machine, he thought it might be too good to be true.
“I looked at it and I thought, can this really exist, can this be true, can this process really work? Plastic, it comes from oil, but can we turn it back into oil?”
Lera experimented with his own small-scale plastic processor, which he admits was not particularly efficient or safe, but it proved that the plastic-to-oil process worked.
He found a company in Japan that promised its machines could do the same thing, efficiently and on a large scale.
With a little more research, Lera discovered how beneficial the technology would be for the Yukon.
“During the process of studying it, what I found out was that there are problems in our recycling stream,” Lera said.
“We all think it’s good to recycle, it’s good to recycle plastic. But in reality, when you go down and look at it, and find out that a lot of our plastic is being shipped out, it goes to China, it goes to India and the processing out there is not very clean.”
Lera’s idea came to life thanks to funding from Cold Climate Innovation at the Yukon Research Centre and the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency, in partnership with P&M Recycling.
They bought the machine for about $200,000 through a distributor and modified it to function in a cold climate.
The goal of this pilot project was to give P&M Recycling the ability to process plastics onsite, rather than sorting it and trucking it south, while producing enough energy to heat the 55-square-metre recycling centre.
Pat McInroy, the owner of the recycling centre, estimates he will save $18,000 in annual trucking and heating costs, plus labour costs for sorting and baling the plastic.
The machine should produce much more oil than is needed to heat the warehouse, and the excess could be sold, he said.
The project will help determine the exact cost of turning plastic into oil, and how much it’s worth in the end.
The technology has been sold to commercial operations, municipalities and non-profits around the world, but this specific design is the first in the world.
Previous models were larger, less efficient and less user-friendly.
People from Alaska and elsewhere have expressed an interest in coming to Whitehorse to check out how the machine works.(Yukon News)