There is little disagreement that plastic waste is a significant global health and environmental problem, and that mechanical recycling has not been a complete solution. Product bans can be appropriate sometimes — specifically, when viable alternatives are universally available, and impacts are not inequitably distributed. However, it is unrealistic to suggest that we can “ban” our way to a sustainable plastics-free society.
Plastics have enabled leaps in health care and sanitation, access to clean drinking water, agility and safety for our military, space exploration, access to myriad outdoor recreational activities, ease and safety in construction, among myriad other uses.
Proposals to eliminate plastics must include an examination of alternatives and consideration of potential unintended consequences. For example, lightweight plastics are critical to increasing fuel efficiency and reducing greenhouse-gas emissions in our transportation sector. Would we go back to manufacturing more energy-intensive materials instead? If so, what are the disposal, emissions, toxicity, scarcity, labor and other attributes associated with these other materials? Which communities would be most impacted?
One reason mechanical recycling has been insufficient is the lack of broadly available, consistent collection and sorting infrastructure. Approximately 30 million rural and 15 million suburban US households lack curbside recycling. This is not a problem with plastics; it is an investment/infrastructure problem. Just as we can deliver mail to every household in the country, we could make the choice to invest in collecting recyclables from them.
Other challenges have included the limited types of plastics that can be mechanically recycled, and even then, only a few times. Advanced Recycling technology provides a solution not only to these two issues, but one I propose is bigger — the root causes of our waste problems, the linear model of consumption.
In the linear model, we extract natural resources, convert them to usable products and, once used, the majority end up in landfills, incinerators, or worse, in our oceans and bodies. In a closed system (such as Planet Earth), linear consumption results in resource depletion as well as the need for ever-greater acreage dedicated to landfills. In contrast, nature has long shown us that sustainable systems are circular. As with the water cycle, in a circular system, what is taken is replenished, and what is left is reused. Nothing is wasted. That is the vision we should emulate.
Advanced recycling of plastic is a step toward transitioning to a circular economy. We take “end of life” plastic, and it is “decomposed” back to its base building blocks using heat (but not oxygen, so it is not burning/incineration, as is widely misunderstood). Those building blocks can then be used to build another useful item, and so on, again and again.
Almost all plastics can be processed using advanced recycling, vastly expanding the waste-reduction possibilities and decoupling their use from petroleum extraction. In addition, these systems create markets for what was previously considered trash, with associated economic incentives for their recovery for molecular re-creation and reuse.
Calls for universal plastic bans misdirect focus and energy. Instead, let us deploy a mix of imagination and pragmatism to implement policy and regulatory tools to unleash innovation. There is exciting work happening right now that is pushing through historical challenges. It is time to focus our energies on promoting the creation and deployment of viable, innovative solutions to eliminate the waste while taking advantage of the positives of plastics in a circular economy. The potential is vast and exciting.