Research

Burning the Midnight Plastic:
Researchers turn ocean debris into usable oil 

MONDAY, APRIL 10, 2017Vials

When Bonnie Monteleone ’11M began her thesis for her master’s in liberal studies, she learned of the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” large swaths of marine debris created by non-biodegradable trash. Since then, Monteleone’s interest in keeping the ocean plastic-free has morphed into a lifelong passion project. After founding the national nonprofit Plastic Ocean Project, Monteleone has partnered with the UNCW chemistry department as well as PK Clean, a company dedicated to turning waste into fuel.

Through PK Clean, the chemistry department has purchased a tabletop depolymizer. After sending plastic products through a chipper, the fragments are fed into their pyrolysis machine and within 30 minutes the plastic begins to turn into oil. Eventually, the team hopes to use solar as the energy source to heat the plastic.

“We usually put in about two pounds of plastic, and the oil we’re producing is wonderful in quality,” said Monteleone. “Some of the oil is close to 2-stroke fuel used in a leaf blower. So I’m beating the drum about how we have to stop this problem of plastic waste in our oceans, and this might be a solution. I’m not a scientist so I cannot sway any of this data. I have to rely on the honest results that the scientists are finding, but the results so far hold such promise for us.”

Beyond the expected chemistry, engineering and environmental studies students involved, business students are also on the team. They see the financial opportunities behind turning plastic waste back into oil. Monteleone thinks a business angle could benefit the environment, a concept often foreign to large, money-making operations who sometimes see profit and environmental conscientiousness as mutually exclusive.

“As a teacher, this project is showing me new, modern analyses that I can incorporate into my own research and share with my students,” said Pam Seaton, chair of the chemistry department and a key researcher in the project. “It excites students to know their work results in something tangible and valuable for the world we live in.”

One such student is Judson Bledsoe ’17, a former member of the NC State/UNCW 2+2 engineering program. Bledsoe decided to stay at UNCW and change his course of study to environmental studies in order to continue working with the depolymizer. He knew this kind of research would not be available to him outside of UNCW. In addition to oil, Bledsoe discovered the depolymizer could be used to create paraffin, a highly marketable substance used to make wax paper, cosmetics and candles.

“Oil is in everything,” Monteleone said. “And so much of it is not able to be recycled. But oil in plastic is recoverable and a resource, not trash. We’ve been looking at it wrong for a very long time. A lot of scientists won’t talk to you if you don’t have a Ph.D. or a science background, but they worked with me. It’s pretty incredible. And it all happened because of where I am, this university.”

-- Caitlin Taylor ’18M