Plastic Is Here to Stay. Can It Be Made More Sustainably?

Yves here. Even though this article discusses some interesting and even promising approaches for making plastics less environmentally destructive, it refuses to consider the question of how to reduce their use. For instance, electronics are generally very heavily packaged, most of that plastic. Liquid soaps are nearly all in plastic containers, when I have seen some very rare cases of hard cardboard. but I did not check if it had a plastic liner or coating, one has to think “yes”. But then again, milk containers are (or were) wax coated cardboard…

Shorter: as with so many issues related to the environment, the default answer seems to be “more tech” rather than “changing corporate and user behavior”.

By Anna Gibbs, a freelance science journalist and current science intern at Slate. Her work appears in the Atlantic, Popular Science, and Inverse, among others. Originally published at Slate; cross posted from Undark

Plastic is a material of possibilities. It can hold groceries and take photographs; it constitutes ski coats and desk chairs and toothbrushes and suitcases. It can do all these things with the same basic building block — polymers, which are hefty strings of molecules. Whether a polymer becomes a rigid suitcase or a thin sheet of Saran wrap depends on the type of polymer, the chemicals that are added, and the way it’s cooked up into the final product.

This diversity is what makes plastic so cool and versatile and successful. But that success is one of the reasons we’re now facing a massive plastic pollution crisis. We rely so heavily on plastic that the current amount on the planet weighs more than all land and sea animals put together. Microplastics have been found in human blood and breastmilkAntarctic snow, and rain. Of the thousands of chemicals added to plastics, about one-third of them remain poorly understood. And the wide range of components in plastic — the diversity that makes it such a useful material — is also what makes it really hard to recycle, contributing to the plastic pollution crisis we’re in today, says Costas Velis, an international expert on the circular economy of plastic.

The plastic problem has gotten so bad that last year more than 170 countries came together to discuss writing a treaty like the Paris climate accords but for plastic. Many experts say that the treaty needs to focus on reducing plastic production. But while this is an important goal, the idea that we’ll just stop needing plastic is “total wishful thinking,” says Velis. “Historically, we’re just producing more and more plastic, because it’s affordable and because it gave us functionalities that we didn’t have.” In fact, plastic production is on track to almost triple by 2060. And the treaty is facing a “coordinated campaign” by the petrochemical industry to slow progress, as seen during the latest negotiations in Nairobi, Kenya, last month.

Since plastic isn’t going anywhere for a while, scientists around the world are working on how to make the plastic we do use less harmful. In the U.S., many of those efforts are focused within a consortium supported by the U.S. Department of Energy, aptly referred to as BOTTLE (bio-optimized technologies to keep thermoplastics out of landfills and the environment). One of the questions the team is trying to answer is: If we have to use plastics, how can we redesign them so they’re sustainable, affordable, safe, and recyclable?

Scientists are exploring a number of different avenues. One obvious answer is to substitute plastic with other materials that serve the same function. After all, people don’t need plastic, points out polymer scientist Brad Olsen at MIT, a member of BOTTLE. “We need things like clothing, health care, shelter. The idea is to provide for those needs with the best materials solution.” That will usually be a polymer, he adds, but it doesn’t always have to be a human-made one. For instance, many naturally occurring polymers are used as materials: cotton, hemp, rubber, birch bark.

But plastic serves a whole bunch of important functions that things like cotton and rubber simply can’t do. So, other research is looking into making polymers that could function like plastic, says Christopher Tassone, lead scientist at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in California, which is another member of BOTTLE. One option is to take biomass — like corn or sugar cane — and convert it into small molecules. Those molecules can then be combined into polymers that can function like synthetic polymers. One of the current sustainable polymers, polylactic acid, is made this way, as is green polyethylene, which is starting to be adopted by some major companies in the U.S, says Olsen.

One of the hopes for bio-based plastics is that they could address plastic’s huge contribution to climate change. Right now more than 99 percent of polymers are made from petroleum sources. If polymers were made from biological material instead, this would not only reduce the burning of fossil fuels, but they could actually be carbon-negative, since the material removed CO2 from the atmosphere while it grew. Bio-based polymers can also be biodegradable, which benefits “the health of all animals and plants on the planet” when plastics inevitably end up as litter, says Tassone.

For this approach to take off, though, the cost of bio-based polymers will need to go down, says Olsen. “When you’re producing something that’s identical but charging more, really what you’re charging more for is the fact that it’s made with green carbon.” Consumers will have to either be willing to pay for that, or else scientists will have to figure out how to make these polymers more cheaply. Right now, scientists are busy at work on the latter.

In general, redesigning plastic will require navigating a series of trade-offs between cost, scalability, carbon emissions, toxicity, and more. It’s challenging to develop the perfect plastic that checks all these boxes, but scientists’ goals remain clear, says Tassone: to develop a plastic with a net zero (or even negative) CO2 footprint that is minimally harmful to the environment once it becomes waste.

Another essential question to consider when assessing a material’s sustainability is whether the plastic can be recycled, and how easily. The recycling many folks are familiar with — toss it in the bin, sort it at a facility, and then turn it into something new — is called mechanical recycling. This is always the ideal option, says Tassone.

We often hear about all the things that can’t be mechanically recycled, such as single-use plastics. The reality is that a whopping 80 percent of plastics can theoretically be recycled this way, says Velis — and yet less than 10 percent of them actually are. Perhaps the biggest problem, then, is not the science, but the logistics. That’s because, again, plastic’s best trait — its ability to be diverse — is also its worst. Picture this: A factory makes a polymer and sends it to several other factories where they mix it with other stuff. That mixture is then fabricated into a bunch of different parts, which are built into products, and then sold to millions of people. Then you have to recollect all of that original material. It’s nothing like the polymer you started with, and it’s mixed and matched with other plastics in a variety of products across a huge geographic range.

“That’s really hard,” says Olsen. “It’s much easier to spread something out than to recollect it.” And even if it is recollected, mechanical recycling struggles with mixed waste streams. That’s why plastic has those confusing numbers in triangles that are very challenging to make sense of — to ideally sort different types of plastic to make it easier on the recyclers. What makes it even harder is that the waste management capabilities vary depending on where you live. “In principle, a lot is recyclable,” says Olsen. “But the question is: Can you find near you a place that will take it and will actually recycle it?”

Fixing the recycling problem will require simplification, scientists say. That can be done on the product level. For instance, within a plastic bottle, there are multiple different types of plastic: the cap, label, glue attaching the label, and bottle. Printing the label directly on to the bottle would remove the label and glue. Another option is to remove chemical additives. Sprite, for example, has switched from green bottles to clear ones because the dye complicates recycling.

For the materials that simply can’t be mechanically recycled — single-use plastics or plastics that have already been recycled several times — there’s another option: chemical recycling. This process breaks down existing synthetic polymers into their molecules so they can be built into something new. Chemical recycling often gets a bad rap because it requires a lot of energy, which produces a lot of carbon emissions, and it can also produce toxic waste, according to a recent report published by Beyond Plastics. While scientists are working on making the process more energy-efficient, chemical recycling will never be an ideal option, says Olsen.

In fact, there isn’t any one silver bullet when it comes to the plastic problem. There are so many different types and functions of plastic, with financial, environmental, or health trade-offs along the way, that there won’t be a one-size-fits-all solution, says Velis. He has looked at several possible scenarios and found that the best outcome was the one that incorporated all the solutions. So, knowing there is no one straightforward answer to my question, I asked a few plastics scientists anyways: In their dream world, what would an ideal plastic look like?

First and foremost, there’d be less types of plastic. An ideal plastic would be able to fulfill the function of lots of different existing plastics — “One Plastic to Rule Them All,” as Gregg Beckham at BOTTLE-member National Renewable Energy Laboratory describes it. It should be made from nonpetroleum sources. It should require low carbon emissions. And it should be able to be made within existing plastic production facilities.

In the life cycle of that close-to-perfect plastic, the plastic should be reusable, says Olsen. Since even bio-based polymers require the land and water associated with industrial agriculture, we want to limit the use of new plastic. Then, once we couldn’t get any more use out of the product, it should be mechanically recyclable — and not just once, but as many times as possible before degrading. And when it couldn’t be recycled any more, there should be another option — either chemically recyclable, or use the waste to make energy. At the very, very end, the plastic would be compostable. This way, plastic would stay within a closed loop for as long as absolutely possible, helping to reduce the amount of new plastic that needs to be made.

The scientists agreed that the biggest problem is not the recycling technologies, but the collection of the plastic to be recycled. Indeed, in Velis’ analysis, he found that the single most effective action to reduce plastic pollution was to scale up collection. A big part of the challenge with increasing recycling rates is how to make recycling more economically profitable, which would incentivize improved systems of collection. But the other challenge is human behavior.

So, while the science chugs on in the background to improve plastic and the economics around them, we all can still play an important role. Keep recycling your plastic items, says Olsen, and make sure to sort them. Whenever you can, reuse your plastic or use a different material instead. After all, it will take all the solutions working in tandem to have any hope of solving the plastic pollution crisis.

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  1. Es s ce tera

    Another problem with the piece is that it assumes a solution needs to be profitable. As long as that is the premise a solution will be impossible.

  2. The Rev Kev

    More TINA thinking. It has got to be plastics and only plastics. I really do not think that it would kill us as a civilization to go back to 1940s-era plastic usage. We’ve been there before. Or instead of researching “better” plastics which only benefit the petrochemical industries, how about doing research on cellulose as a viable alternate material. Even if it took a Manhattan Project effort, I would bet that a lot of useful materials could be made based on cellulose.

    1. Darthbobber

      Costa rica banned most single-use plastics a few years back, and the difference between before and after was very noticeable this spring.

      The amount of utterly unnecessary plastic packaging in this country has been steadily rising for most of my life, and efforts to do anything about it are noticeable by their absence.

      1. steppenwolf fetchit

        Or, if American culture doesn’t like “bans”, every dispenser of single use plastic bags could be forced by law to charge a dollar, or five dollars, or ten dollars, or whatever it takes . . . for every single use plastic bag used by every single customer, in order to price-torture every single customer into using fewer single-use plastic bags, and price-torture every single customer into using their five-or-ten-dollars-apiece single-use plastic bags more than one time.

  3. PlutoniumKun

    A much overlooked element is that some plastics are actually quite easy to recycle, either like for like (PE), or as a somewhat degraded but still useful product (PVC).

    The problem is not ‘plastic’ but ‘mixed plastic’, which is what the overwhelming majority of post consumer plastic consists of. And nobody has worked out an efficient system of automatic sorting, not least because one item may contain multiple types of plastic, which in turn can have a near limitless number of additives for various reasons.

    So one solution would be to ban all plastics except for one – probably PE is the most useful. But in reality that horse has bolted and this can’t be done except perhaps in very limited markets (for example, agricultural plastics). Or we can perfect cracking plants which could potentially reduce mixed plastics to their original base chemicals – several pilots have been built, but to my knowledge none have been successful.

    We’ve created a monster that will be almost impossible to reign in… it will take multiple technical breakthroughs in processing, tracking, re-using, recycling, etc., as well as all the associated regulatory changes.

  4. John

    Our society is optimized for financial, not ecological efficiency.

    I am in favor of taxing single use products at 100%, and removing all taxes on products that are reused. For instance, if plastic spoons were taxed at 100% while dishwashers were taxed at 0% this would change the cost structure of Food Industries. We would have a lot more dishwashers (human & mechanical), and a lot less cardboard boxes.

    Right now, Amazon’s externalizes all its costs, which means that small business cannot compete. If Amazon Cardboard Boxes were taxed at 100%, while the small business guy could reuse all their packaging by returning it to the distributer it would change the dynamic.

    In my province, all beverage containers have a refundable deposit on them. This creates a whole industry around the deposit, the primary beneficiaries being the poor who collect and return the beverage containers. Expanding this system would have many benefits, the most obvious being a higher return rate, and more income for those at the lowest level.

    1. steppenwolf fetchit

      Just charge every Food industry customer ten dollars for each plastic spoon, and watch how fast those customers save those plastic spoons for use again and again and again.

      It seems to me that price-torture could work if the price were torturous enough. Maybe ten dollars for a plastic spoon is enough to torture the customers into saving their plastic spoons.

  5. Otto Reply

    Not to go all 420 on y’all, but Jack Herer pointed out in The Emperor Wears No Clothes that natural plastic technology includes hemp.

    A Conspiracy to Wipe Out the Natural Competition

    In the mid-1930s, when the new mechanical hemp fiber stripping machines and machines to conserve hemp’s high-cellulose pulp finally became state-of-the art, available and affordable, the enormous timber acreage and businesses of the Hearst Paper Manufacturing Division, Kimberly Clark (USA), St. Regis – and virtually all other timber, paper and large newspaper holding companies, stood to lose billions of dollars and perhaps go bankrupt.

    Coincidentally, in 1937, DuPont had just patented processes for making plastics from oil and coal, as well as a new sulfate/sulfite process for making paper from wood pulp. According to DuPont’s own corporate records and historians,* these processes accounted for over 80 percent of all the company’s railroad car loadings over the next 60 years into the 1990s.
    *Author’s research and communications with DuPont, 1985-1996.

    If hemp had not been made illegal, 80% of DuPont’s business would never have materialized and the great majority of the pollution which has poisoned our Northwestern and Southeastern rivers would not have occurred.

    In an open marketplace, hemp would have saved the majority of America’s vital family farms and would probably have boosted their numbers, despite the Great Depression of the 1930s.

    But competing against environmentally-sane hemp paper and natural plastic technology would have jeopardized the lucrative financial schemes of Hearst, DuPont and DuPont’s chief financial backer, Andrew Mellon of the Mellon Bank of Pittsburgh.

    1. Eclair

      Hemp, Cannabis sativa cultivars, would be a natural substitute for environmentally devastating plastic, for certain applications. Hemp, I believe, is an annual, and must be planted every year.

      There is a native plant, called Indian Hemp, or Hemp Dogbane, Apocynum cannabium, used by native Americans for centuries, for making fibers, which could be woven into string, rope, clothing and other useful items. The plant spreads through rhyzomes and pops up every spring. It resembles common milkweed, to which it is related, with a milky exudate which is toxic to mammals.

      A few years ago, there was a small patch of it growing in one of the fields that we had just purchased from the estate of our deceased neighbor (aged 95.) He had spent his last summers on his old Ford tractor, mowing the fields. A visit from the local conservationist led us to not mow the plants, which she identified as milkweed and great for visiting monarch butterflies. Two summers later, we had almost an acre of Indian Hemp in the field where it was first identified, plus patches had sprung up in other fields.

      We now have a regular mowing program to try, if not to eradicate, at least to control, the Indian Hemp. So, I know that the stuff will grow by itself. Apparently no predator or disease-bearing organism will touch the stuff (including, apparently, Monarch butterflies,) although pollinators love the its tiny flowers. I have not experimented with processing the stems to produce fibers, yet. Maybe production is too easy? No profits to be made from selling fertilizers, herbicides, farm machinery to plow and till, seeds.

  6. synoia

    The inability to reuse plastics is an interesting demonstration of entropy.

    Reversing entropy is by hand is costly, specially when and if it is recycled by hand sorting.

    As a corollary, as a child there was NO plastic. Glass s, shopping baskets, and paper were used instead.

    Our small, garbage can (dustbin) was rarely filled over half full.

    Not doing something stupid is much more effective than continuing to continue being stupid with damaging behaviors.

  7. Fastball

    One thing that can definitely go away — the extremely hard “clamshell” plastic encrusting many electronics products and utensils when bought at a store. In addition to being environmentally unsound, it’s downright obnoxious. How many people have experienced a plastic casing so damn hard it needs a guillotine to open?

  8. BrooklinBridge

    I wonder if artificial intelligence could be successful at an industrial level to accomplish not only the sorting but also subsequent processing of random plastic objects.

  9. digi_owl

    It has likely been a couple of decades since i read about a German company that claimed they had a method for using lignin, usually a by-product of paper production, as a replacement for oil based polymers in injection molding. The end product could even be burned like wood when broken.

  10. Mark

    Interestingly, in LAX you can’t buy water in plastic bottles. It’s either glass or aluminum bottles. At Eugene, Oregon airport you can only buy water in plastic bottles.

  11. NYMutza

    The problem is far greater than plastics. It is very easy to purchase something, and quite often very difficult to dispose of it. Furniture is difficult to dispose of. So are electronics. Clothing is very difficult to dispose of. The best thing we can all do is to consume a whole lot less. Nobody “needs” twenty pair of shoes. Nobody “needs” multiple flat screen TVs. Nobody “needs” a couch + loveseat + multiple recliners + end tables + “mood” lights + a whole slew of knickknacks.

  12. Hayek's Heelbiter

    chemical recycling. This process breaks down existing synthetic polymers into their molecules so they can be built into something new. Chemical recycling often gets a bad rap because it requires a lot of energy, which produces a lot of carbon emissions, and it can also produce toxic waste,

    There is a another method, Cold Plasma Pyrolysis, that is fast cheap and efficient, and usually squelched by Big Oil (Energy?) any time a municipality wants to install a CPP plant.

    Cold Plasma Pyrolysis refers to the process in which plastics are converted into gases like hydrogen, methane and ethylene.

    CPP works on anything that has C-C, C=C or C-H bond, e.g., plastics, plant waste, dried sewage.
    Plenty of information online

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