There are times when I despair for the future of our planet. I’m usually in the supermarket when this happens, muttering to myself about the impossibility of buying anything that’s not wrapped in some form of plastic – even cucumbers and broccoli for god’s sake. But in these bleak days, I’ve found hope.
Plastic is overused, we all know this. But we could be forgiven for taking an “ah sure it’s grand, doesn’t it go into the recycling bin” approach. ‘Fraid not, folks. In fact, here’s some fairly shocking stats: of all the plastics ever produced, only about 9% has been recycled. A further 12% has been incinerated. That leaves 79% still floating around our oceans or sitting in landfills – that’s somewhere in the region of 6.5 billion tonnes. Crazy!
I put my plastic packaging into the recycling bin like the good little Lisa Simpson that I am. But a lot of it will eventually be burned or dumped in countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam. These countries have accepted the Western world’s plastic waste since China closed its doors in 2018, but their recycling is often ad-hoc and hazardous. Sometimes plastic waste is recycled by many individual households in a village, causing environmental and health concerns for the local area and its residents.
Damn You, Plastic
Of course, the problem with plastic is that it’s just so damn useful. It even holds our teabags together. And let’s face it, we love the convenience – hands up who really wants to go back to using tea leaves? Yes plastic… it’s a bit like that annoying friend we’ve drifted from, but we can’t ditch because they’re always there when we need them.
But we know we can’t carry on like this. We must gently break it to that friend: we’ve blocked them on our social media feed because we’d really like to see less of them. We need to break out of this toxic relationship – but how? Will we ever be able to live without plastic?
Well, perhaps we won’t have to. One of the major issues with plastic recycling is that it’s just not profitable enough. However, some scientists in the field are working to develop cost-effective and sustainable methods for recycling almost all of our plastic waste.
Last week, researchers at the Irish Composites Centre (IComp) at the University of Limerick won funding to develop a new and exciting initiative. Thanks to these clever people, we may soon be able to convert plastic bottles into useful, durable products.
Many plastic bottles never make it to recycling centres. The ones that do are currently recycled into things like duvet filling and nappies. But IComp researchers have developed an economically viable method to convert recycled plastic into a high performance and hard-wearing material – which will itself be fully recyclable.
This new substance has potential uses for car and tractor parts, electronics and construction materials. The funding received last week will enable researchers at IComp to take the project from the research to development stage. At the moment it’s looking for industrial partners to get involved. Find out more here.
From Plastic Waste to Clean Fuel
Of course, there are many other types of plastic that are not recycled because it’s not profitable enough, or just not currently possible. Here also there’s good news. Researchers at Purdue University in the US have developed a method of converting one of the most commonly used type of plastics into a range of other useful materials – including clean fuel!
According to lead researcher Linda Wang, the patented technology could convert up to 90% of polyolefin plastic. Polyolefin is one of the most widely used plastics in the world with applications in shopping bags, soft plastic wrapping, straws, tetra pak coatings, electrical cables – the list goes on, and on.
The research team wants to increase profitability in the recycling industry while at the same time depleting the world’s mountain of plastics. The amount of polyolefin waste produced each year could yield 4% of the global demand for fuel. Sounds like a win-win.
Can’t Somebody Else Do It?
One of the problems with recycling is the need to properly separate everything and wash out containers. Even to the most dedicated souls, this is tiresome. Many of us don’t bother at all – and who could blame us? Modern life is busy!
But lots of plastic waste is unusable because it hasn’t been washed or separated properly. Waste companies in Ireland estimate that 30% of recycling is lost in this way. Enter IBM – they’re promising to completely transform the waste and recycling industries over the next five years with a new technology called VolCat.
VolCat is a machine that can recycle basically everything. There’s no need to separate materials or even to clean them. VolCat will even be able to handle materials that are usually difficult to recycle, like clothes, carpets and toys. And, it will be sustainable and cost-effective. Sounds too good to be true!
So, on my next food shop I’m aiming be a little less prophet of doom, a little more normal shopper. Here’s hoping.