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Noteworthy Efforts to Tackle Plastic Pollution

Photo by Marcell Viragh on Unsplash

Photo by Marcell Viragh on Unsplash

Plastic is one of the most controversial man-made materials. Since its existence, it has gone from innovative and convenient to taboo and now life threatening.

The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) claims that "plastic pollution soared from two million tonnes in 1950, to 348 million tonnes in 2017, becoming a global industry valued at $522.6 billion. It is expected to double in capacity, by 2040."

In a paper published in "Environment International", researchers found microplastics in the blood of 17 of 22 of study participants, or about 77 percent.

The Recycling Sham

In a joint investigation, and the PBS series Frontline found that oil and gas companies – the makers of plastic – have known that all along the vast majority of all plastic produced can't be or won't be recycled.

The investigation revealed that the plastics industry had "serious doubt" recycling would ever be viable.

Starting in the late 1980s, the plastics industry spent tens of millions of dollars promoting recycling through ads, recycling projects and public relations, telling people plastic could be and should be recycled.

But their own internal records dating back to the 1970s show that industry officials long knew that recycling plastic on a large scale was unlikely to ever be economically viable.

A report sent to top industry executives in April 1973 called recycling plastic "costly" and "difficult." It called sorting it "infeasible," saying "there is no recovery from obsolete products." Another document a year later was candid: There is "serious doubt" widespread plastic recycling "can ever be made viable on an economic basis."

The investigation also revealed that the industry promoted recycling to keep plastic bans at bay.

Despite this, three former top officials, who have never spoken publicly before, said the industry promoted recycling as a way to beat back a growing tide of antipathy toward plastic in the 1980s and '90s. The industry was facing initiatives to ban or curb the use of plastic. Recycling, the former officials told NPR and Frontline, became a way to preempt the bans and sell more plastic.

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2022 UNEA Resolution

Heads of State, environment ministers and other representatives from 175 nations, endorsed a historic resolution at the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi on March 2, 2022 to end plastic pollution, and forge an international legally binding agreement, by the end of 2024.

The resolution, based on three initial draft resolutions from various nations, establishes an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) which will begin its work in 2022, aiming to complete a draft legally binding agreement by the end of 2024.

That in turn, is expected to present a legally binding instrument, which would reflect diverse alternatives to address the full lifecycle of plastics, the design of reusable and recyclable products and materials, and the need for enhanced international collaboration to facilitate access to technology, to allow the revolutionary plan to be realized.

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The search for answers to the plastic waste problem is intensely growing. Here are some ingenious environment-friendly solutions that may become the new standard.

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Poly (Isosorbide Carbonate)

At Tokyo Institute of Technology in Japan, a team of scientists led by Assistant Professor Daisuke Aoki and Professor Hideyuki Otsuka is pioneering a novel concept. In their new environmentally friendly process, plastics produced using biomass (bioplastics) are chemically recycled back into fertilizers.

The team focused on poly (isosorbide carbonate), or “PIC,” a type of bio-based polycarbonate that has garnered much attention as an alternative to petroleum-based polycarbonates. PIC is produced using a non-toxic material derived from glucose called isosorbide (ISB) as a monomer. The interesting part is that the carbonate links that join the ISB units can be severed using ammonia (NH3) in a process known as ‘ammonolysis’. The process produces urea, a nitrogen-rich molecule that is widely used as a fertilizer. While this chemical reaction was no secret to science, few studies on polymer degradation have focused on the potential uses of all the degradation products instead of only the monomers.

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Catalytic Hydrothermal Reactor (Cat-HTR)

A professor of chemistry at the University of Sydney in Australia, Professor Thomas Maschmeyer co-invented a technology that turns plastic waste into oil to be used in fuel, chemicals or new plastic products in less than 20 minutes.

His invention, called the catalytic hydrothermal reactor (Cat-HTR), can process plastics that were previously considered un-recyclable.

The process is less carbon-intensive than mining for fossil fuels to create more plastics. Plastic waste is shredded and mixed with water at a high temperature and pressure. It then goes into the Cat-HTR for around 20 minutes, where it is transformed at a chemical level back to the oil from which it came. This oil can be used for fuels or sustainable chemicals and products, which can at the end of their lifespan be fed back into the technology, where it is transformed for new use over and over again.

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Biocatalyst Technology

The Australian company Samsara Eco has developed a revolutionary biocatalyst technology that allows for the infinite recycling of plastics. Developed in conjunction with the Australian National University, the technology depolymerises plastic waste and allows for the reuse of the monomers in producing food grade plastics with the same characteristics as virgin plastic. The technology is particularly useful in recycling heterogeneous mixes of hard to recycle plastics, including coloured, multilayered and mixed plastics.

According to CEO Paul Riley, unlike other alternate recycling solutions, Samsara’s process is performed at room temperature and is truly carbon neutral, operating it in a sustainable way.

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Researchers at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Roorkee have developed an environment-friendly biodegradable substitute for single-use plastics packaging by using plant-based material called polysaccharides which is fully biodegradable within a week. IIT Roorkee researchers claim that the material is non-toxic and has been made without using chemicals that are usually used in the production of synthetic plastics.

The IIT Roorkee research team that developed the eco-friendly biodegradable plastic material was led by professor Kirtiraj K Gaikwad, of the paper technology department at IIT Roorkee and his student Lokesh Kumar, MTech (packaging tech.).

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PHA Bioplastic Resin

CTK Bio Canada has developed a new bioplastic resin designed to biodegrade by both industrial and home composting, as well as in unmanaged environments like soil and seawater, in order to reduce microplastic pollution.

The materials are designed to overcome a critical barrier in the bioplastics space – the ability to degrade in water. CTK Bio Canada’s materials are designed to break down not only if disposed of in the green bin, but also if they end up discarded to the environment. The materials should degrade only to nontoxic byproducts, while also remaining compatible with equipment for manufacturing traditional plastics.

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Specialized Bacteria

The Canadian company Genecis Bioindustries uses bacteria to make compostable bioplastics from food waste. The polymer that the company makes is called PHA, and it works similarly to most plastics.

The technology at the core of the company’s new PHA manufacturing process is a new species of bacteria that the company evolved. The bacteria converts carbon-based organic waste into organic acids, according to chief executive Luna Yu.

The two-step process is based on two groups of specialized bacteria used throughout the process: The first group digests food waste, producing short-chain carbons as volatile fatty acids, acting as the precursor feed stock for the second group, which eats these carbons and converts them into bioplastics.

Not only can they make the compostable plastic, reducing the plastic waste in the environment, but by using food waste as a feed stock Yu said her company can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80%.

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UK based Kelpi, makes compostable and low-carbon bioplastic packaging.

Notpla, creates natural-membrane packaging that was used in water pouches for London, UK Marathon runners in 2019.

Zerocircle, based in Guragaon, India, turns local seaweed into dissolvable, ocean-safe packaging.

Sway, based out of Berkeley, California, also works with seaweed for a home-compostable thin-film plastic alternative.

Marea in Iceland uses local algae to design yet another biofilm alternative that fully degrades in the environment.

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Further Reading

  • History and Future of Plastics
  • Plastic
  • The disturbing truth about plastic recycling
  • How Big Oil Misled The Public Into Believing Plastic Would Be Recycled
  • Hundreds of chemicals found in water stored in reusable plastic bottles
  • Reusable Packaging Is the Latest Eco-Friendly Trend. But Does It Actually Make a Difference?
  • Rich countries are illegally exporting plastic trash to poor countries
  • The Ocean Cleanup and Kia announce Global Partnership
  • How to Eat Less Plastic
  • Single-use plastic waste is getting phased out in California under a sweeping new law

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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