The aim was to develop oil conversion equipment anyone can operate.
Q Please tell us what brought you into plastic to oil conversion.
The fundamentals of plastic to oil conversion are not that complex. When heated, plastic changes to liquid and if heated further it vaporizes. If you cool the gas with water, oil can be recovered. I thought that by making use of Japanese technology, it should be easy to convert plastic to oil. This was the start of our business.
As you know, Japan is a country with few natural resources. However if converting plastic into oil could become a reality, the mountain of waste would turn into an oil field.
Blest was established in 2001. The following year, the initiative was selected by NEDO (New Energy, Industrial and Technology Development Organization), to be given a grant and the business appeared to have made a smooth start. However, Mr. Ito soon hit a large wall.
At first we started by aiming to use existing technology developed by proceeding companies. However none of the equipment worked for us satisfactorily.
To operate the equipment, we had to prepare special pre-treated plastic, and many exceptionally skilled engineers were necessary. At this point, I honestly thought the implementation was very far off.
Within Japan at the time, operations had already started at large plastic to oil conversion plants. However, as the equipment becomes larger, the cost of collecting and separating the plastics, and the CO2 emissions from collection and transport both increase. Their company aim was to develop a small-scale device that would make a full completion system possible at the community level.
There is a limit to what can be achieved by collecting large amounts of plastic by truck, separating the plastics and turning it into oil.
On the other hand, using small-scale equipment and converting the plastic waste at the point of production is more efficient.
Yet for this to become a reality, it was essential to develop a simple machine anybody can operate. That is where our struggles began.
Today, their plastic to oil conversion device is completely electronically controlled, with an interactive touch panel to control operation. Without the use of heating power or high pressures, it is possible for anyone to safely operate and to produce oil.
Various factories and a portion of recycle companies have bought the device, and operations are beginning. In spite of that, to fully extend to the whole of society, there is another big problem for the technology.
Technology alone is not the solution. There was another problem to get to the bottom of.
Q. What was the biggest problem in making use of oil conversion technology?
The problem was, ‘How do we separate the plastic?’
Our device converts 3 kinds of plastic, Polyethylene (PE), Polypropylene (PP) and Polystyrene. This makes up 60% of the plastic produced domestically but to ensure smooth oil conversion can occur, more than “plastic waste”, plastic separation is necessary.
A large proportion of plastic waste is containers and wrapping thrown out from the average family home. The main purpose of these is to protect the products or promote sales within the shop; the recycling point of view is not always of importance. Due to this, separation of plastics requires a large amount of labor. The reality was, with these costs, plastic to oil conversion was not economically profitable.
Without establishing a custom of separating plastics by each individual person, the prerequisite to oil conversion, becoming a reality will be difficult. This was Mr. Ito’s conclusion.
Facing this reality he began an educational program for children.
Blest’s equipment recovers approx. 1 liter of oil for every 1kg of plastic waste. Mr. Ito thought if children collect and separate the plastic and see this changed into oil before their own eyes, they will understand about separation of waste. Mr. Ito calls the separation of plastics for the purpose of converting it to oil “Purposeful Separation”.
Experience of oil to plastic conversion in Niihama Kids Environmental Summit in Niihama City, Japan
Q. Please tell us the reason for choosing children as the subject of the educational program.
Soon after establishing the business there was a request by one recycling organization to teach children that oil can be produced from plastic. At the time, this organization was carrying out a very successful campaign within elementary schools where they exchanged one roll of toilet paper for every 100 bottle top caps collected. From this I realized if we educate children, the parents also become involved and it becomes a large movement.
By bringing the oil conversion device into an educational environment we also aimed to dispel rumored concerns at the time regarding safety.
Embarrassingly, at the beginning, my thoughts were filled by ways to build a market for my company’s product.
Mr. Ito first stood in front of children at the elementary school his children went to
Here is one story from that time.
One day, as Mr. Ito was demonstrating the plastic to oil conversion as usual, one child asked this question. “But, if plastic is made from oil, why doesn't plastic smell like oil?” Mr. Ito was brought to a standstill.
Smell is sensed as the components vaporize. With plastic, the molecules are fixed and the components don’t vaporize. I had to explain this to the children in a way they would understand.
Since that event I began seriously studying about waste problems and environmental issues. The children educated me instead.
Also, children take in the accurate essence of a problem. The other day, I received a letter from a child.
“I thought that if I started something on my own it had no meaning. However, after taking the lesson, I learnt the importance of the difference one person makes.”
Reading letters like this, I feel that I have not been mistaken in how I have come to be where I am.
Mr. Ito is still now conducting environmental education at primarily elementary schools but also high schools and universities across the country to spread the “School oil field” concept and pass on “Purposeful Separation” for separating waste plastic to return to oil. A group called “Eco Party”organized by School Corporation Matsumoto Gakuen , largely influenced by the “School oil field” concept, is continuing to travel around schools in Nepal and the Northeast disaster area with a truck loaded with oil conversion equipment, distillation devices and power generators.
This is called the “School Oil Field Caravan”.
With purposeful separation, schools will change into oil fields. It was named with this in mind.
School Oil Caravan Car: Equipped with a crasher, an oil to plastic equipment, a distillatory apparatus and a power generator, it has travelled in India and Nepal. Now the caravan is visiting the damaged areas and schools in Tohoku areas.
Q. Was it difficult for a venture business to contribute to society in this way?
Of course, at first a large proportion of people thought we had come to sell something. Due to this we set up the NPO “School Oil Field” to conduct these activities.
Also, at first we self-financed the activities, but we couldn't continue like that. Now, we ask each school to pay only the actual cost.
Through the activities we have met many supporters, and this is one reason we have been able to continue. The “Stadium Oil Field” concept became a reality when the IAAF World Athletics Championships 2007 Osaka’s IAAF Green Project adopted the idea. All food containers used at the site were made from materials that can be turned into oil and the waste plastic was returned to oil and then used to run a power generator at the site.
These activities are also connected to the School Field Caravan activities carried out by “Eco Party”, which was established in spring 2011.
Plastic Waste is a common problem for the whole world. The solution is therefore the same.
Q. How did you start the activities abroad?
It started with a letter sent to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs by the President of the Republic of the Marshall Islands. In 2007, along with the Foreign Youth Collaboration Group, we visited the Marshall Islands and explained to the children of a school under the President the concept of “School Oil Field”, passed on the message of “Purposeful Separation” and donated an oil conversion device.
Islands in the South Pacific making up the Marshall Islands are an average of 3m above sea level. Due to the fear of being submerged from global warming, the awareness of world environmental problems is extremely high. At the same time, they were facing problems with the disposal of plastic waste.
The situation was that by burning waste CO2 is generated and considering the geographic conditions ensuring disposal ground was difficult. Within these circumstances, the countries attention was on the Japanese plastic to oil conversion technology.
Truthfully, at the time, I received advice from someone knowledgeable in local matters. They said, “Purposeful Separation will be difficult within Japan but in foreign countries it will be impossible.”
It is true that there was not a system of recycling marks equivalent to the Japanese "Plastic Mark", which was a big obstacle we couldn’t imagine in Japan.
However, there is no doubt that even in foreign countries when people see plastic waste transformed into oil in front of their own eyes there is a huge change in their awareness.
When we take oil prices into consideration, it may be easier to establish “Purposeful Separation” in poorer countries, rather than prosperous ones like Japan.
Q. By reading the comments posted on the United Nations University Video Brief uploaded on YouTube, you can understand how much worldwide attention the plastic to oil equipment has attracted. Were you looking to advance your business abroad from the outset?
From relatively early on we had planned to carry out activities as one part of our contribution to society, although we were not that aware that our business would advance in that way. Therefore we were very surprised when the United Nations University article had such a large reaction.
In August 2010, over a year since United Nations University published their report, we saw a sudden rise in enquiries from abroad.
Before then we received no more than 3-5 enquiries a week on average, then one day we began receiving tens of emails each day from abroad.
Truthfully at first, when United Nations University received enquiries, we didn't understand why. When we looked into it, it became clear that the United Nations University video brief had been uploaded to YouTube and was being accessed intensely.
This was then posted on people’s blogs around the world and before we knew it, our equipment was known throughout the world.
Between then and October 2011 we have received in total approximately 15,000 emails from abroad. The majority of which have been business inquiries.
Q. Have you felt any difficulties carrying out educational activities abroad?
There is nothing in particular.
Up to now I have seen waste disposal areas in various countries from Alaska to below the equator and these landscapes are surprisingly similar. This is because among the decomposing waste, the non-decomposable plastic remains.
This image is the same even in the poorest countries, because products imported from abroad are mainly wrapped in plastic.
One of the countries in poverty I visited, the Republic of Benin in East Africa, has a GNI of US$750 (2009, World Bank). There I saw people living next to a river overflowing with plastic that had been thrown in.
This scene has come about from an old custom of throwing waste into the river, which suddenly now includes plastic containers and wrapping.
The plastic waste problem is a common problem over the whole world. That being the case, the solution should again be worldwide.
In the Republic of Benin: Garbage is stacked on both banks. Later it will flow into the ocean and becomes “drifted garbage.”
Q. With the aim of expanding abroad, what problems do you now face?
In order for developing countries to accept us we think it is necessary to reduce the retail price. We want to make a product that anyone can use into a product everyone can afford.
Since last summer we have had many enquiries from abroad, but in truth the majority of enquiries have ended once we sent the price list.
The goal of overcoming this problem is already in place. In the third generation machine currently under development, the equipment is largely simplified. When this becomes a product we are expecting a retail price of close to half of the price up until now.
Upon receiving an order, we send a plan and the production will take place in each country. That is the future business plan they have drawn up. If this becomes a reality, plastic-to-oil conversion may advance at once to every part of the world.
Currently, in 2011, our product has been introduced to approximately 20 countries, with sales agents decided already in the United States of America, Canada, Greece, Holland and India.
One other aim we have is for “Purposeful Separation” to become a common term throughout the world.
With only technology the plastic waste problem with not be solved. Our biggest contribution to society will not be technology development or the selling of a product, but spreading the culture of purposeful separation in the world.
Never give up. That is the sole path to success.
Q. As you touched on at the beginning, plastic to oil theory in itself is not so complicated. Also at the start of the initiative, there already existed front-runners in the industry. In these circumstances, how did you achieve success?
I would hesitate to call the business without enough returns successful, but I think it can be summed up in the phrase “Never give up”. In these last 10 years, inclusive of financing, the troubles have been continuous. But if you give up, that's where it ends.
Q. What advice would you give to people currently in the environment business or of thinking of taking up the challenge?
“Continuation is power” is the only thing I can say.
To achieve this, gaining people’s understanding is essential. If you want to continue a business, more than anything else, you need to increase the number of supporters..
There is a limit to how much one person can do, if you can build a team, things that you never even thought about become possible. With that in mind, for a manager the most important thing is probably “likeability”.
Even now I consistently depend on the university professors who work hard on development and the people working on the financial side. On the other hand, if I begin boasting about my work that would be the end. Perhaps, this is also common worldwide.
Also, in the case of venture businesses, ensuring mass media pick up on your business is necessary to compensate for a lack of social confidence.
Q. If you score your effort out of 100, what would your score be?
With the meaning that in the last 10 years I have continued things above my own ability, I would like to give myself a score of 120.
I have met many friends, established a new business field and received acclamation from people all over the world. For me, in these 10 years, amazing miracles have continued to occur.
Blest Co. , Ltd.
Environmental Culture Organization ECOPARTY