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Entrepreneurs Turn Plastic Waste into Fuel

Plastic waste is swamping Asia's landfills, and some ends up at sea, harming marine life. Now, environmentalists and entrepreneurs are attempting to recycle plastic back to its main component - oil.

In the northern Pacific Ocean, scientists say a large pool of plastic waste half the size of the U.S. state of Texas, weighing 300 million tons, is threatening marine life. Ocean currents carried the waste from north Asia and North America.

Doug Woodring leads Project Kaisei - a small group of conservationists and entrepreneurs from Hong Kong, California and London, who aim to recycle the plastic into diesel fuel.

"The problem is a lot of this does not biodegrade. It does not go back to nature," he said. "When the plastic and the material gets smaller and smaller, sometimes the fish eat it or the turtles or the birds eat it. So there's a lot of problems with the health of the ocean and the marine life."

This summer, the organization will bring its boat, the Kaisei (or ocean planet in Japanese), to the so-called plastic vortex.

"We'll be taking out the Kaisei so we can do all kinds of studies on marine life, on toxicity issues, on material sciences and then on how to get the waste out, how to catch it - that's probably the biggest task here," he said. "We have new technologies that can turn that into diesel fuel. So that is something that at least can help subsidize cleanup in the future if we can get out there with bigger vessels and different netting," he said.

Most of the plastic waste that ends up in the ocean comes from land. Landfills are running out space and people throw debris into the water.

In Thailand's Rayong municipality, Single Point Energy and Environment recycles plastic waste into liquid fuel that is then sold to oil refineries. Sativipa Panichkul is an environmentalist and an executive of the company.

"The technology will cut the molecule into a chain of oil and gas. It transforms the plastic back into its original form," said Sativipa.

Up to 10 tons of plastic waste, such as shopping bags and parts of appliances, toys, computers and office equipment can be fed into the recycling machine a day. That becomes 28 barrels of liquid fuel, which can be used directly in machinery, motorcycles and heating systems.

"It is my intention to put the idea … to make the government adopt the policy in turning plastic waste into energy because Thailand has so much plastic waste - approximately a minimum of 2.5 million tons per year," said Sativipa.

After warnings from environmentalists, governments in Asia are beginning to address the problem of plastic waste. Hong Kong has imposed a tax on plastic bags. Thailand is studying a tax on oil-based plastics. But few governments are moving into directly recycling plastic into fuel.

Santivipa says two towns in Thailand are adopting his company's technology despite its price tag - the recycling machine costs $2 million - a sign that governments are willing to pay for a cleaner environment.