In defense of plastic (sort of)
Plastics are…complicated. Can new recycling methods clean them up?
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I’m coming in with a hot take this week: plastics might just be the most useful inventions of the 20th century.
Before you get out the pitchforks, let me take you on a tour of just a few of the ways that people’s lives are better because of plastics.
Plastics are instrumental in medicine, from syringes to IV bags to glasses lenses. They’re integral in electronics, making possible today’s cheap and light-weight phones and computers. Plastics have even had a hand in making electric vehicles more practical, because cutting weight helps extend how far they can go with the charge in their batteries.
Plastics have brought down costs across industries and saved lives. That helps explain why they’re absolutely everywhere.
- Plastics production has exploded, topping 400 million metric tons annually.
- Plastic waste is everywhere. About 8 million metric tons of plastic end up in the ocean every year.
- Plastics are inside us. Microplastics have been found in the blood, and can cross the placental barrier. (Researchers are concerned about their impacts, though evidence is still thin.)
Now, I’m sure you’re probably guessing where I’m going next, but it needs to be said: plastics are an environmental, climate, and public health disaster.
Burning plastic, a common practice in developing countries that accept plastics from richer regions like the US and EU, can produce toxic fumes, harming the most vulnerable. The practice also produces greenhouse gas emissions, though those emissions are probably less significant than what’s produced by making plastics in the first place.
Add all that up and what do we get? A large part of society that’s fully come to depend on plastics for a wide range of uses, and a lot of people that are severely and consistently harmed by their use.
Where the heck do we go from here?
Honestly, we’re not getting rid of plastics anytime soon. They’re everywhere, truly ingrained in our lives.
Taking steps to cut down on gratuitous plastic use is a start. And right now, there are currently major talks going on about a potential UN Plastics Treaty. Nations agreed to enter talks about a treaty earlier this year, and negotiations about the details began this week.
It will probably take until 2024 for the treaty to be completed, and we don’t know all the details yet, though there’s been talk of production limits, as well as more restrictions on what can go into plastics. But limits on how much plastic nations produce probably won’t be enough to solve the problem.
Finding ways to reinvent plastic recycling could also play a huge role in cutting down on plastic’s negative impacts.
Most plastic recycling today relies on thermal and mechanical techniques—basically melting down plastics and reforming them. This works well in some cases, but can lead to a lower-quality product than what you started with.
That’s why almost no plastic water bottles that do get collected for recycling are made into new water bottles. Instead, the small fraction that do end up getting recycled are typically used to make other products, like carpets.
New approaches like chemical and biological recycling could fix some of these problems. For example, last year I wrote about a French company called Carbios, which is working on using microbes to recycle the plastic in water bottles, PET. If the method winds up being economical, it could help more bottles get recycled back into bottles.
But that process won’t work for all plastics. That brings us to chemical recycling, a huge umbrella term for a variety of different recycling approaches.
One of the most interesting areas in chemical recycling to me is mixed-feed recycling: where different plastics might be handled with one process. Plastics that go to a recycling facility today are separated before going through processing, because your water bottle needs a different treatment from your milk jug.
If it were economical, a mixed-feed recycling system could help recycling make a more significant dent in our plastics problem.
Chemists are trying to do just that, as I wrote about in a new story. Using chemical tools like oxidation and catalysis, or biological tools like genetic engineering, researchers are trying to create a truly circular system for plastics, where old materials create the building blocks for new ones.
A caveat here: details matter when it comes to chemical recycling. The term can refer to a wide range of practices that includes burning plastics, and there are concerns about how these facilities will run and how they’ll affect communities around them. And some of the processes produce chemicals that won’t actually go into new plastics, or be particularly useful to anyone.
But some chemical recycling methods can actually produce useful products, and if handled right, they may help to realize the vision of a circular plastics economy.
There’s still a long road ahead of these efforts to reach commercialization. Improvements to the lab process will be needed to accommodate the wide range of plastics used today and to work at a large scale. But if chemical recycling can safely and economically make useful building blocks for new materials, they could help chip away at the mountain of our plastics problem.
Do check out the full story for more on these new recycling methods and how they might fit into the industry. I’d also recommend this coverage from Nature and Wired on the UN plastics treaty negotiations, and this coverage from Grist and Inside Climate News on concerns about chemical recycling.
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