Rethinking Plastics

Making and using tools has defined the Human Species. Since we first picked up a stick to ease honey out a bees nest or a stone to grind up seeds, tools have been a central part of our development. It has only been in the last 150 years that those tools have been made of plastics and yet in that short span we have created something which is both to our great advantage but also hugely destructive of our environment.

The first synthetic polymer was invented in 1869 by John Wesley Hyatt, who was inspired by a New York firm’s offer of $10,000 for anyone who could provide a substitute for ivory.

History and Future of Plastics

Elephants were being slaughtered for their ivory to make everything from piano keys to billiard balls. Finding a substitute for ivory – whatever the reasons of the company behind it – might at least reduce the killing of animals for their parts. An illegal slaughter which continues to this day and completely unnecessary.

It was really the invention of Bakelite in 1907 by Leo Hendrik Baekeland and post World War 2 consumerism that led to a surge in plastic production. Today plastic is part of our lives (love them or loathe them) from tiny toys within chocolate eggs to live saving medical equipment.

But what do we do now because we have created a colossal plastic pollution disaster?

The world now produces more than 380 million tonnes of plastic every year, which could end up as pollutants, entering our natural environment and oceans.

Plastic Pollution

We have to rethink our plastics. Four scientists have published a call to action in  Science, devoted to the plastics problem. They call for fundamental change in the way plastics are designed, produced, used and reused.

Graphic by Jeffrey C. Chase

We need to have a truly circular life cycle for the plastics we have. The scientists make the following point that:

“The plastics waste dilemma is a global challenge that requires urgent intervention and a concerted effort that links partners across industrial, academic, financial, and government sectors buttressed by significant investments in sustainability.”

This would include recycling, “upcycling” (reusing materials in new added-value ways), development of new materials and recognition of the needs of under-resourced communities.

Plastics are made up of a complex set of different components which makes them difficult to deconstruct for use in other products. We see this with our recycling – the plastics which the council permits us to put in the recycling waste and those it does not.

LaShanda T.J. Korley, director of the Center for Plastics Innovation (CPI) at the University of Delaware, explains:

“Different materials properties require the use of different polymers and blends and additives, which contributes to the complexity and hierarchy of waste.”

Less than 10% of plastic waste is recycled at all and less than 1% will be recycled more than once. About 12% will be incinerated. Millions of tons of discarded plastic winds up in giant swirls of debris in the ocean and the rest of it piles up in landfills, sinks into riverbeds or lies on roadsides around the world.

Brett A. Helms of the Molecular Foundry at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California was part of the team that created a next-generation plastic called PDK (polydiketoenamine), which can be reduced back to its molecular parts and reassembled as needed.

He said:

“We’re at a critical point where we need to think about the infrastructure needed to modernize recycling facilities for future waste sorting and processing.

“This is an exciting time to start thinking about how to design both materials and recycling facilities to enable circular plastics.”

gannet with plastic netting , photo B Bell

Reporter: Fiona Grahame

1 reply »

  1. More power to the elbow of Brett A. Helms. Good but tragic photo by Bernie just lets hope folk take notice along with organisations such as the RSPB and its members, including myself

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