The proliferation of plastic waste across the globe is threatening the very survival of life on the planet. Reports say that every year, millions of metric tons of plastic materials end up in our oceans, landfills, and just about any place you can imagine. It is predicted that plastic waste pollution is set to triple within the next decade — poisoning our marine life, littering landscapes and clogging waterways. There is no question that the world is suffering from a plastic crisis. Exactly how to manage the situation has been the subject of plenty of investigation. Efforts have focused on everything from reducing the use of plastic packaging to using drones to help spot plastic-clogged waterways from the sky. Awareness is on the rise and experts report that surveys reveal a sense of true determination throughout the world to solve plastic pollution.
While many have advocated for plastic recycling initiatives, some researchers have argued that recycling, while typically very reliable and beneficial, just won’t cut it. This is because we are simply producing products containing plastic material at an alarming rate — a much faster rather than we are attempting to recycle the material. This means that our best course of action is to move away from traditional recycling ideals and focus on finding a comparable plastic alternative or researching innovative ways to upcycle and reuse plastics.
A big push in the plastic industry is too tackle the plastic consumer items that wreak the most havoc on the environment — which means: single-use plastic bags, single-use bottles, plastic straws, and plastic packaging (the impossible to open type that is typically packaged with electronic devices). At the moment, many researchers are looking into biodegradable plastics (BDPs) as alternatives for these items. Current BDPs on the market are made of organic material that is meant to mimic plastic but is programmed to naturally decompose.
However there is a downside to BDPs. Most on the market right now are made with thermoplastic starch, which uses a polyester similar in material performance to plastic. Some polyester can be broken down by interaction with certain bacteria, while others simply break into smaller pieces — which makes the material not all that different from the way current single-use plastic works. And even if all single-use plastics were made into BDPs, there simply isn’t enough compositing infrastructure to support it. So, while we aren’t there yet, researchers are coming closer to finding an organic material that can replace plastics. For example, plants like Miscanthus (Elephant grass) are currently being tested as a durable plastic-comparable material in the manufacturing of car parts.
Other ways that researchers are dealing with the plastic crisis involves taking plastic waste and turning in to something useful like fuel. To achieve this, researchers have pioneered a new chemical conversion process, capable of converting more than 90 percent of polyolefin waste (a polymer found in most plastics) into high-quality gasoline or diesel-like fuel. If these tests prove to be successful, the results could be a complete game changer in tackling the war against plastics.
Innovation is also playing a key role in plastic waste reduction. In the U.K., chewing gum is a particularly bad plastic pollutant problem. But now a new invention could spell the end of the scourge. Enviro-entrepreneur Anna Bullus has put in place a network of pink gum bins, which are themselves made of recycled gum. As consumers discard their gum, the bins and their contents are sent off to be processed and recycled into a range of stylish products from shoes to coffee cups. “All the solutions out there at the moment all address gum litter once it’s already been dropped. There is nothing out there that’s actually addressing it from the front end,” she says. “So I saw a gap in the market for a product like this and also a way of tackling behavioral change when it comes to gum litter and giving people a positive way to dispose of their chewing gum.” The invention is keeping streets gum free and paving the way for a new type of plastic upcycling.
There are various ways we can approach plastic recycling. It’s time we ditch the traditional plastic recycling bins, which don’t seem to be getting us much of anywhere, and start thinking outside of the box. In an age where threats to the environment are widespread, it is important for individuals and industries alike to make an effort to minimize the negative environmental impacts of their activities.