We make use of an enormous amount of plastic in the normal course of our lives. Some of this plastic will be sent to the landfills, while some of this plastic will be sent to the recycling facilities. Unfortunately, even the combination of these two solutions is insufficient for the challenge, meaning that plastic waste is a serious problem with worldwide implications for our future.
Landfills are insufficient for handling plastic waste because plastic is a long-lasting material that can take centuries to break down into other, less objectionable substances. As a result, plastic waste sent to the landfills will be taking up limited space for the foreseeable future, thus putting a limit on how much that particular solution can help with this particular issue. It is interesting to note that some landfills have the facilities needed to incinerate plastics, but once again, this comes with a number of serious issues.
First, incinerated plastic releases an enormous amount of pollution in the atmosphere, which can threaten human health while also contributing to the global problem of climate change via the greenhouse effect. Second, while incinerated plastic can be used to provide energy, it is not a particularly effective and efficient way to do so, meaning that it is at most, no more than a patch on the problem.
Likewise, recycling facilities are insufficient for handling plastic waste because some materials can be recycled into the same materials while other materials are recycled into similar but nonetheless lower-grade materials. For example, metal is something that can be melted down to make more metal of the same standard so long as the recycling facilities are willing to put sufficient time, effort, and other resources into it. In contrast, paper is recycled into lower-grade paper because the recycling process tears the strands that make up the material into shorter and thus not as strong strands, with corresponding consequences for the resulting product. Plastic falls into the latter of these two groups, meaning that there is a serious limit on the number of times that plastic waste can be recycled before it becomes useless. As a result, recycling is useful for reducing the extent of the problem but not so much for solving it on a permanent basis.
This is without pointing out the amount of plastic waste that is tossed in places where it should have never been tossed. After all, we are all familiar with the sight of birds with plastic can holders stuck around their beaks, thus making it impossible for them to sustain themselves by feeding on their normal sources of food. However, it is important to note that this is but one example of how plastic waste can cause harm to us as well as our surroundings, making it no coincidence that there is such a strong interest in solving the problem.
What Is the Latest Breakthrough When It Comes to Plastic?
One example is how a team-up between scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the University of California, Irvine has come up with a method to degrade polyethylene into diesel fuel as well as other useful substances. This is important because polyethylene is one of the most common kinds of plastic, so much so that 100 million metric tons of the substance is being produced on an annual basis. As a result, once the process has been scaled up into something that can be put to commercial use, it should be able to have a profound impact on the handling of plastic waste.
Of course, scaling up the process into something that can be put to commercial use is much easier said than done. In main, this is because the process uses iridium as one of the catalysts for the chemical reaction that is central to it, which is a serious problem because iridium can be expensive in the large quantities that will be needed for a commercial counterpart. However, if the scientists can either find a cheaper substitute for iridium or come up with a way to make the process much more efficient when it comes to its use of iridium, then a reduction in the amount of plastic waste will not be an impossible dream.
Why Is This So Important?
This is important for a number of reasons. First, a process that degrades a common kind of plastic means that plastic will not have to be sent to either the landfills or the recycling facilities, which come with the issues that have been previously mentioned. Second, a process that degrades a common kind of plastic into useful products such as diesel fuel, butane, and industrial wax has commercial value for those who choose to use it, which is important because it increases the chances of people buying into it. After all, the proper handling of plastic waste is not something that can be achieved without all stakeholders being convinced into taking action, whether in the form of consumers choosing to toss their plastic waste into the recycling bins rather than the garbage cans, businesses choosing to set up containers for recyclable waste alongside containers for other kinds of waste, or governments choosing to set up programs for spreading awareness of the issue as well as its potential solutions to interested individuals. By increasing the commercial value of recycling plastics, this process promises to make it easier to convince all stakeholders to participate once it has been refined for commercial application.
Finally, it is hard to overlook the symbolic value of American and Chinese scientists working together to come up with a solution to a worldwide problem. After all, China and the United States are two of the most powerful countries on the planet as well as two of the biggest polluters on the planet, meaning that no proposal to combat climate change can succeed without their cooperation. This as well as the recent signing of the Paris Agreement by both countries show that beating climate change might not be an impossible dream after all, which is encouraging news on a topic that needs it.