IN FALL 2011, a recycling depot in Whitehorse partnered with Cold Climate Innovation to test a revolutionary plastic-to-oil processor. P&M Recycling, one of two main facilities that serve the Yukon capital’s 23,000-plus residents, had been losing money for years by shipping plastic waste 2,370 km to Vancouver for processing. But after local passive house advocate Andy Lera discovered the Blest Machine (on YouTube) and convinced other community stakeholders of its virtues, the city’s disposable coffee lids, yogurt containers and grocery bags have taken on new value.   

The Blest Machine, created by Japanese inventor Akinori Ito, uses pyrolysis (thermochemical decomposition) to produce one litre of oil for every kilogram of plastic. In September 2012, P&M Recycling installed the NVG-200 model (roughly the size of a pool table) for $175,000. The machine now processes 240 kilograms of plastic per day, about enough to continuously heat 70 homes in Northern Canada, with almost no waste byproducts. Owner Pat McInroy says the technology will save P&M up to $18,000 annually on heating and labour costs.

“We all think it’s good to recycle, it’s good to recycle plastic,” Andy Lera told Yukon News, “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.”

In addition to sidestepping the dubious nature of some recycling practices, the Blest Machine challenges the notion that discarded plastics last forever and can only be remade into other plastic products. 

How the Blest Machine Works

Although Whitehorse’s Blest Machine recycles grocery bags and certain kinds of containers (such as egg cartons), it does not process items such as clear food packaging, outdoor furniture or shampoo, water and soda bottles. Combined, the PP, PE and PS plastics produce a mixed synthetic light sweet crude (composed of diesel, gasoline, kerosene and heavy oils). It takes less than one kWh of energy and one kg of plastic to produce one litre of oil.

How the Blest Machine Works - Click to view full diagram \ Diagram by Anežka Gočová

Crushed plastic chips are loaded into a collection container and then melted as they're pushed through two chambers with ceramic heaters. The plastic is then vapourized at 400?C, leaving behind a non-activated carbon char residue. The gas is then cooled in a condenser and liquifies into oil. Any remaining gas is filtered and released as carbon dioxide and steam.

Building Blest Practices 

In 2001, Akinori Ito founded the Blest Company in Japan. Motivated by declining conventional oil reserves and plastic pollution, Ito wanted to adapt existing pyrolysis technology to create community-scale plastic-to-oil processors that would not require plastic to be pre-treated. Other attempts to make fuel from plastic had produced a sludgy, low-quality fuel. Within its first year, Blest was awarded a grant by the New Energy, Industrial and Technology Development Organization, Japan’s largest public research and development firm. 

Ito’s company has since created more than 60 commercial applications for customers in Japan, Africa and Nepal alone, and its products are also distributed in Canada, the United States and South America. Blest products are scalable to different residential and commercial applications, with processing capacities ranging from five kg of plastic per hour to three tonnes per day. In Japan, pyrolysis machines are used at municipal waste facilities – including the Tokunoshima Island Clean Center – and to make boiler fuel from plastic bags.

In Numbers: Why We Need to Use Less Plastic

Click to view the gallery.

For more details on how the Blest Machine works and surprising plastic facts, buy the Greenbelts issue now!

Julie is an urban planning graduate student at the University of Waterloo, focusing on sustainable transportation.

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