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What Can We Do With Billions of Plastic Shopping Bags? Turn Them Into Fuel, Apparently

With a plastic waste crisis looming, a new study suggests single-use plastic bags, which are thrown out by the billions in America each year, and wreak havoc on marine life, could be used to generate diesel fuel and other petroleum products.


Researchers at the University of Illinois’ Sustainable Technology Center have found a way to turn plastic bags into diesel fuel, natural gas, and other petroleum products.


Past studies have converted the bags -- which are made from petroleum -- into crude oils, but this work goes a step further. The researchers created products that can blend with diesel and biodiesel fuels.


“It’s perfect,” said Brajendra Kumar Sharma, a senior research scientist the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center, in a press release. “We can just use it as a drop-in fuel in the ultra-low-sulfur diesel without the need for any changes.”


The process to convert the bags -- which involves heating them in an oxygen-free chamber -- generates “significantly more” energy than it uses, according to the university.


“You can get only 50 to 55 percent fuel from the distillation of petroleum crude oil,” Sharma said. “But since this plastic is made from petroleum in the first place, we can recover almost 80 percent fuel from it through distillation.”


Until a system is in place that can maximize the use of such technology, it’s best to stick to reusable bags. But, maybe a solution to the world’s plastic waste problems is on the horizon.


What You Can Do (in the Meantime):