Take a walk around the average landfill, anywhere in the world, and what do you see? Broken bottles, old tin cans, refrigerators and TVs litter the ground, but all of these put together shrink to insignificance beside the mountains of plastic packaging, paper, and food waste. This is the wisdom of progress: we use a shrinking land base to store dwindling resources in a form that makes them prohibitively expensive to recover.
In a rational world, there is no such thing as garbage. Everything we throw out was useful at some point, and could be useful again. Food wastes are compost, one of the Earth’s most valuable treasures. Paper can be made back into paper, at far less energy cost than producing new paper, and without destroying trees. Someday our great-grandchildren will curse us for squandering resources and tearing up the bush to mine for metals we already had laying around in dumps.
Plastics, however, are another matter.
Plastic. Just about everything we buy comes wrapped in plastic, and we buy lots of stuff, much of it plastic too, and at this time of year most of it’s cheap junk that’s destined for the landfill before much time has passed. We can and should recycle it, at a tremendous energy savings over making new plastic. But it’s hard to get enthused about shipping it all back to China to be made into more plastic junk, wrapped in more plastic packaging, and shipped back here for us to buy and throw away again.
But guess what that plastic’s made of? Hint: its something else we go through quite a lot of. Yes indeed friends, that white grocery bag, that Styrofoam box your burger came in, that old half-chewed dog toy, your kids’ broken toys, they were all once oil, and can be oil again.
According to a recent article in the Yukon News, Mount Lorne craftsman Andy Lera, with backing from the Yukon Cold Climate Innovation Centre, could soon be processing plastic back into oil for 14 cents a litre, not much more than a tenth of the current price at the pumps.
Lera plans to achieve this feat by means of a Japanese invention, a machine that could sit on a desktop, which takes all manner of plastic and converts it back into oil. The oil can then be refined into diesel, gasoline, or kerosene. The web version of the News story includes a link to a video in which inventor Akinori Ito talks about his concern for the environment, and his Archimedean inspiration that “(Plastic is) made from oil, so it’s probably not very difficult to convert it back.” The video goes on to show Ito with his machine in various developing nations, bringing oil-from-garbage technology to people who have little else but garbage.
This is the kind of thinking the world needs: a machine that produces something we need from something we normally discard. It reduces the greenhouse gas emissions that would be created by manufacturing new plastics. It takes plastic out of the landfill – where it plays merry hell with compost recovery. Best of all, it’s portable and affordable. It’s not a mega-project that’s going to alienate somebody’s ancestral land. It’s not going to turn a lake into a tailings pond. And if the machine comes wrapped in plastic, no worries, it can eat the packaging first, and produce its first few millilitres of oil.
Ito’s machine isn’t about to solve the Yukon’s fuel problem. We live miles from everywhere. A big piece of our economy is based on enormous machines moving dirt around, and most of the rest involves transporting people in gas-guzzling machines, either by air, land or sea. But this is the way the world survives, in small sensible steps. Turn plastic into oil, not in some giant refinery, but in your backyard, and be reminded every day of these two planet-saving maxims: small is beautiful, and there is no such thing as garbage.
Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon in 2010 and 2002. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.