Trash to cash: Can Germany turn its plastic waste into fuel?

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Trash to cash: Can Germany turn its plastic waste into fuel?
An employee of the Biofabrik White Refinery holds up their 'WastX Plastic'. Photo: DPA

One company near Dresden has created an innovative approach to turn plastic waste into fuel - which it hopes to roll out throughout Germany and beyond.


One grey container: in it, a system of a dozen pipes, smaller containers and a whole lot of technology are set up. It rattles and hums, and the smell of oil wades through the air. 

For Oliver Riedel it is a labour of love: “WASTX Plastic”. After many years of research, the now completed prototype can turn plastic waste into fuel - at a rate of 250 kilos per day. 

“One kilo of plastic produces roughly one litre of fuel” states the founder and business manager of the company Biofabrik White Refinery based in Rossendorf near Dresden. 

Riedel says his product is sorely needed. Recently released figures by the German environmental organization BUND are quite drastic: 400 million tonnes of plastic are produced every year, and 8.3 billion tonnes produced from 1950 to 2015. Not even a tenth is said to have been recycled. 

Additionally every German is said to have contributed 38 kilograms of plastic waste to the global total in 2016.

SEE ALSO: How Germany's environment minister plans to turn around plastic use

Biofabrik White Refinery founder Oliver Riedel. Photo: DPA

Payments for the plastic problem

Riedel has a vision: polluted beaches at which local authorities or hotels set up recycling facilities. Tourists, locals and fishermen alike chucking their plastic rubbish into machines and receiving money for it, perhaps over Paypal. 

Fishermen could even have a conversion apparatus on-board their vessels. 

“Perhaps people will then begin gathering more plastic on the beaches or by the sea” says the 43-year-old. Not only would the mountains of rubbish begin to shrink, more fuel would be produced that could be used for ships and generators, he said. 

“Many islands with a plastic problem also have an energy problem," Riedel adds

But Riedel’s method isn’t exactly new. Pyrolysis involves synthetic materials being heated to very high temperatures and thus being transformed into a fluid form. Riedel and his team have developed special reactors, in which shredded plastic particles are heated up to about 500°C without the presence of oxygen.

Impurities such as sand and salt are filtered out. Once the process is complete, out drops a dark liquid with the characteristics of none other than diesel.

“Gelee Royale” grins Riedel.

A miracle apparatus?

Riedel’s apparatus can turn seemingly anything into oil, be it food packaging, fishing nets, aluminum lids, tarpaper. Things that often get incinerated as they can’t conventionally be recycled. 

Riedel works with 25-head-strong team of engineers, scientists and technicians. In Asia he once saw piles of plastic trash, and had the idea to turn the material into fuel.

He traveled across the world for a year, so he could have a look at various machines which could do so, explained the businessman. Most machines that he saw were far too expensive or inefficient.

“We wanted small, decentralized facilities that anyone could control with a tablet, that were profitable and keep up with German environmental standards,” he explains. He and his team researched this for six years, but encountered many setbacks along the way.

Roman Maletz, a researcher for plastic recycling at the Institute for Waste and Recycling Economy at the Technical University Dresden, considers the transformation of plastic into raw materials to be a good approach to the sustainable use of plastic waste. 

Experience of his, however, showed that the technical transformation is apparently difficult. Economically, the method was reasonable if you were applying it on large scale facilities.

However, these were prone to failure due to the variation of waste being fed in. “If it were a competitive technology, it would have performed better.” says Maletz.

An energy intensive process

In addition, the transformation is an energy-intensive process. Maltez therefore sees its highest potential with large energy companies, which integrate plants such as Riedel’s into their processes.

The chemical group BASF wants to do something along those lines with the project “Chemcycling”, which involves making synthesized gas and oil out of plastics, in order to replace fossil fuels in their own production. 

An employee of the Biofabrik holds the newly produced WastX Plastic. Photo: DPA

The Austrian energy group OMV has also developed a method with which crude oil can be produced from plastic waste. In the process, used plastic packaging and film are transformed into synthetic crude oil through extreme heat and pressure. A hundred liters of crude oil can be made from 100 kilograms of plastic packaging through this method. 

In the past two years, much as been done in the re-engineering of plastics. 

“But a wonder machine in which you just put all plastic waste and produce good quality oil with a sufficient energy balance is difficult for me to imagine,” Maltez added.

SEE ALSO: Are plastic bags on the way out in Germany?

Despite that, Biofabrik boss Riedel is still optimistic that his facility-idea will prove itself: the first “WASTX Plastic” should soon be operating with the packaging specialists Schur Star Systems in Flensburg in northern Germany.

It is supposed to be able to transform 1000 kilos of plastic a day. Riedel is currently in contact with local dealers in over 35 countries, and has contracts with others in Australia, Japan, the USA, Korea and Turkey. He intends to work with local dealers in the 20 most industrial nations by the end of the year.

His motto: “Trash to cash”.


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