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To Survive In Syria, Melting Plastic Into Fuel

With no electricity or gas, enterprising locals in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta have begun extracting fuel products by melting plastic scavenged from destroyed buildings.

The basic kit for alternative oil
The basic kit for alternative oil
Abdo al-Idelbi

GHOUTA — After living under siege for more than two years, the 500,000 residents of eastern Ghouta in the Damascus suburbs have developed alternative ways to obtain basic necessities. Short of electricity and oil, they have begun extracting fuel products by melting plastic.

Abu Talal, 43, owned a car-painting service when the Syrian war began. He adapted that knowledge to create an unusual startup: generating oil products from plastics and selling it to locals desperate for fuel.

"I know a few things about burnt fuels. When the regime cut off all supplies, I thought of extracting gasoline and diesel by burning plastic," he says, describing the makeshift practice.

"We get plastic materials from areas and buildings that are deserted after being shelled by the regime forces. We collect all the plastic we find, such as water tanks and drainage pipes."

After Talal and his team gather the plastic, they cut it into smaller pieces and put 50 kilograms in each barrel, along with 20 meters of piping to cool the water that runs in and out of the barrel. They contain narrower tubes, which contain the fumes that come from the burned plastic. Then they light a fire.

"It takes two to three hours to extract as much as possible from one batch of plastic," he says. "In the last stage, we get the temperature to 100 to 115 degrees to extract a kind of diesel. The temperature must be accurate for the diesel to come out and for it to burn well, so it can be used in cars and motorcycles."

He says their operating consists of the basic kit: plastics, pipes and barrels, which have to be replaced after two production rounds in order to avoid explosions.

"We buy plastic water pipes for 300 to 350 Syrian pounds (about $2) per kilogram," Talal says. "Water tanks cost 100 to 200 pounds per kilogram. A liter of gasoline costs us 600 to 700 pounds (roughly $4), and we sell it in Ghouta for 800 pounds $5, a profit of 100 pounds.

"It's a practical technique, and everybody benefits," he says. "We extract gasoline and diesel that run electricity generators. Electricity helps farmers grow better crops."

He says that his business supports 15 families — each with a breadwinner on his team, earning up to 1,000 pounds, or $6.25, per day.

But he admits that the rudimentary process can lead to health issues, with some workers coughing severely after inhaling the fumes.

It's clearly a hazardous process. "On the other hand," he says, "we are providing for ourselves and our families."

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