British Columbia

'Part of the solution': Haida Gwaii students turn trash into fuel

A teacher in Masset, B.C. is teaching students how non-recyclable plastic can be turned into diesel fuel by bringing new technology into the classroom.

A teacher in Masset is teaching students how plastic can be turned into diesel fuel with technology

Daniel Schulbeck is teaching his students at Gudangaay Tlaats'gaa Naay high school in Masset about sustainability by turning disposable plastics into diesel fuel. (Matt Allen/CBC)

High school science teacher Daniel Schulbeck spends rainy days in his greenhouse, pouring trash into Chloe, a machine that turns non-recyclable plastic into diesel fuel.

Chloe acts as a kiln, which heats up plastics to 425 C and melts the materials down to liquid. The liquid then evaporates and the vapours travel through a stainless steel pipe to a water bath, where the steam condenses and diesel floats to the top. 

This process is known as pyrolysis.

"It's going well," he told CBC's Matt Allen. "We're learning how to work the machine and work the technology, and we're all really excited."

Hands-on approach

Schulbeck read about a similar machine at a recycling depot in Whitehorse, Yukon and was inspired to bring that technology into his classroom at Gudangaay Tlaats'gaa Naay high school in Masset, on Haida Gwaii. 

He says the hands-on approach to showing students how single-use plastic can become something useful has been relevant not only to the school's curriculum, but also to students' environmental concerns. 

"Everybody is becoming aware of the plastic problem that that we as humans are creating," Schulbeck said. "The high school students are pretty keenly aware of what the deal is with plastic. They held a march and the target was plastic and so for them, that machine to show up a few weeks later was was really exciting for them." 

"They feel like are a part of the solution."

The machine uses common household plastics, numbers two, four and five, which make up items that are generally thrown away. 

Caps from plastic beverage bottles have proved to be an excellent source for creating diesel. Schulbeck visits the local bottle depot to collect caps that might otherwise end up in the landfill. 

A kiln melts down plastics, which through a process called pyrolysis, becomes diesel fuel. (Matt Allen/CBC)

He says another great item to make diesel from is old VHS tapes. He was able to source 2,000 tapes that weren't being used, which worked out to about 400 kilograms. Each kilogram of plastic can be turned into one litre of fuel.

With files from Matt Allen