In defense of plastic (sort of)

In defense of plastic (sort of)

This article is from The Spark. It is MIT Technology Review’s weekly climate newsletter. sign up to receive it every Wednesday in your inbox.

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 essential in medicine. They can be used to make IV bags, syringes, and lenses. They are integral to electronics, making it possible to make light-weight and cheap phones and computers. Plastics are also a key component in electric vehicles. Because they reduce weight, the range of their batteries can be extended.

Plastics have brought down costs across industries and saved lives. This helps to explain why they are everywhere.

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. Although the practice produces greenhouse gas emissions, they are likely less than those produced by making plastics in their first place.

Add all this up and you get… There is a large population that has come to depend on plastics for many purposes and many people who are constantly and severely harmed by their use.

Where the heck do we go from here?

Honestly, we’re not getting rid of plastics anytime soon. Plastics are ingrained in our daily lives and are everywhere.

Taking steps to reduce gratuitous plastic usage is a good start. And right now, there are currently major talks going on about a potential UN Plastics Treaty. Nations formally agreed to start talks about a treaty in the spring. Negotiations about the details started 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. Limits on the amount of plastic produced by nations won’t 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. Although this can work in some cases, it can result in a lower quality product than the original.

The majority of plastic water bottles that are collected for recycling don’t get recycled and are used to make new bottles. Instead, the small fraction that do end up getting recycled are typically used to make other products, like carpets.

Some of these problems could be solved by new approaches such as chemical and biological recycling. 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 process proves to be economical, it could allow more bottles to be recycled.

But this process won’t work with all plastics. Chemical recycling is a broad term that covers a wide range of recycling methods. Mixed-feed recycling is one of my favorite areas of chemical recycling. This is where different plastics can be combined in one process. Plastics that are sent to a recycling facility today must be separated before being processed. This is because your water bottle requires a different treatment than 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. Researchers are using chemical tools such as oxidation and catalysis or biological tools such as genetic engineering to create a circular system for plastics. This is where old materials become the building blocks for new materials.

A caveat: details are important when it comes 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. Some of these chemicals are not suitable for use in new plastics or will not be useful to anyone.

However, some chemical recycling methods can produce useful products and, if done right, could help to realize the vision for a circular economy in plastics.

These efforts are still far from commercialization. To accommodate the wide variety of plastics that are used today, and to work on a large scale, improvements to the lab process are necessary. However, chemical recycling could be a safe and economical way to make new materials.

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.

Keeping up with climate

Massive floodgates have helped Venice avert disaster. However, moderate sea-level rise could endanger the multi-decade-old, multi-billion-dollar project by midcentury. (Washington Post)

Offshore wind in Scotland is bringing new energy and jobs to communities that previously relied on oil and gas production. (New York Times)

Satellites show offset sites in California don’t end up with more forest biomass, meaning they’re not actually capturing the carbon they advertise. (Los Angeles Times)

Sketchy offsets? Who would have thought? (MIT Technology Review)

Dandelion Energy raised $70 million to expand geothermal energy with its residential heat pumps. (Canary Media)

Mauna Loa in Hawaii is erupting for the first time in nearly 40 years. (Gizmodo)

– In case you were wondering, humans emit more carbon dioxide than volcanoes do, by a lot. (Reuters)

Crypto miners love the cheap electricity in Texas, but concerns about their impact on the state’s grid and the climate are growing. (Texas Observer)

Europe’s summer heat waves probably caused about 20,000 deaths in total across the UK, Spain, Germany, and France. (Bloomberg)

– Rising temperatures are causing an uptick in air conditioning across the continent. (MIT Technology Review)

Environmentalists say China’s zero COVID policy is slowing climate action. (Bloomberg)

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