Plastic to oil FAQs

What is plastic to oil?

Also called pyrolysis or depolymerization, plastics to oil is the process of converting waste plastic back into oil to be used as a fuel. Approximately ten of these facilities have been developed in the United States, including one here in Minnesota, and the technology has been embraced by the waste management industry as a technology that can divert more plastic from landfills.

Is processing plastic to oil a form of recycling?

No. Processing plastics to oil, and other technologies that produce fuel, fit better with the waste hierarchy definition of resource recovery. The material is being used to create energy and not recycled into a new product. It falls below recycling on the waste hierarchy, but is preferable to landfilling. The MPCA uses the waste hierarchy, as defined in statute, as criteria for preferred methods of solid waste disposal.  

"Recycling" means the process of collecting and preparing recyclable materials and reusing the materials in their original form or using them in manufacturing processes that do not cause the destruction of recyclable materials in a manner that precludes further use. Should future plastics to oil processing produce a feedstock that is used in the development of other polymers, the MPCA would reconsider its position.

Can source separated recyclables be used in plastic to oil processing?

No. Materials collected through a source separated recycling program are required to be recycled by statute (115A.95). Using source separated materials in this process would be similar to collecting source separated materials for recycling and then sending them to a waste to energy facility to be burned for energy. If a facility asked to use source separated materials in a plastic to oil processing facility, the agency would have to deny the request. At this time, the MPCA has received no requests.  This question has been raised given that many haulers are now accepting an expanded list of plastics (#1–#7) for recycling and there is increased interest in the end markets for the newly collected materials.  

What are current facilities doing?

There is currently one plastic to oil processing facility in Minnesota that is recovering waste plastic material as a feedstock from a mixed municipal solid waste facility. They are sorting mixed MSW material and recovering number one plastics and metals for traditional recycling, and capturing other mixed plastics to process into a synthetic crude oil to be used as fuel. This does not violate Minn. Stat. 115A.95 because the material is mixed MSW and not source-separated recyclables

What permit requirements exist for facilities looking to process plastic to oil in Minnesota?

Just like waste to energy facilities, there are implications beyond solid waste that need to be considered by the MPCA when permitting this kind of processing facility. Depending on the specific process, it is possible that it could be considered beneficial use. For specific questions on permitting requirements, contact the MPCA at 1-800-657-2843.

What are the environmental benefits of using a plastic to oil technology?

Environmental benefits will vary from facility to facility. The specific processing technology and types of feedstock being used will impact the level of environmental benefits from these facilities.