Innovative Ways Companies are Turning Waste Into Fuel

This article originally appeared on GreenBlue's In The Loop blog.

Most of us are now aware of the environmental impacts and availability issues surrounding fossil fuels. You are also probably aware of some of the alternatives being developed to address these issues. I recently read two articles that highlighted very different alternatives for generating fuel while diverting waste.

The first article was on converting waste plastics into fuels. Many organizations developing this conversion process are using pyrolysis and distillation to convert low value plastic waste into synthetic fuels. In a webinar I recently attended, it was stated that one metric ton of waste plastic would generate roughly 700 liters (l) of diesel, 200 l of kerosene, 50 l of light oil.

This is a process gaining a lot of steam and we should expect to hear more about it in the coming months. Below is a video outlining the Polyflow's plastics to fuel conversion process:

In an even more creative approach, a recent article focused on a new potential fuel source: Alligator Fat Could be Used as Biodiesel. This article referenced research coming out of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette which found that alligator fat had the potential to be converted into biodiesel. Alligators are currently raised for their meat and skins, and industry disposes roughly 15 million pounds of fatty byproduct annually.

This byproduct could potentially be processed into approximately 1.25 million gallons (~40,000 barrels) of fuel. Though 40,000 barrels is nothing to scoff at, the US has imported an average of 10.5 million barrels of petroleum per day over the last 15 years. Perhaps a collective of small scale efforts like this and running cars on newspaper will have significant impacts over time

But would any of these approaches risk unintended consequences?

The plastic to fuel conversion seems like a great solution to keeping lower value plastics out of landfills. Being able to process these plastics back into raw fuel and technical nutrients is a positive step in creating a closed loop system.

However, should we be concerned about increased applications of some of these lower value plastics? Some of these plastics contain additives that are potentially dangerous to human health and reproduction. We're finding a new use for these plastics, but are we also increasing potential exposure to chemicals of concern in pursuit of low fuel prices? Furthermore, we are not addressing the issue of fossil fuel dependence through this solution.

If we accept using alligator fat as a fuel source, I don't think it's too absurd to believe that alligator would appear more frequently in restaurants and their hides would be used in more fashion accessories and clothes. Should we encourage alligator farms to expand and add more stress to our water systems? Should we encourage production feedlots to fatten and confine wild animals?

These concerns may be unfounded, but if we are going to consider implementing innovative methods of extracting fuels we should also be smart in thinking about the system-wide consequences.

The approaches mentioned here have the potential to effectively divert a portion of the waste stream while producing high value products. Though they both have a degree of appeal, we must proceed with thorough analysis and understanding of impacts on our entire ecosystems. Perhaps the more important question is this: given all the creativity demonstrated in finding new sources of fuel, are we putting enough creative effort into moving away from a fuel-dependent society?

For more on the methods companies are using to make sustainable innovation happen, check out our upcoming GreenBiz Innovation Forum, October 11-13 in San Francisco.

Photo CC-licensed by cobalt123.