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Toward a Circular Economy: Tackling the Plastics Recycling Problem
By Margaret Sobkowicz
Why has the world continued to increase consumption of plastic materials when at the same time, environmental and human health concerns over their use have grown?
One answer is they are immensely useful to humankind, and despite problems they create, they have provided countless benefits. They are used to construct lighter automobiles and planes, improving fuel efficiency and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Plastic food packaging has dramatically reduced food spoilage, improving human health as well as decreasing emissions associated with transportation and decomposition of waste. In addition to all these upsides, another benefit often quoted is that plastics are recyclable.
At UMass Lowell, where I am based, we argue that "recyclable" must be clearly distinguished from "recycled." Unfortunately, society has a long way to go before we could declare plastics recycling a success.
My group has been working for the past eight years on sustainability of plastic materials for a range of applications. We study plant-based and biodegradable polymers, improved technologies for recycling plastics and reducing plastics toxicity. Polymers (long-chain organic molecules) are fascinating materials, and they have provided so many benefits to society; however, as population and consumption rates grow, humans must always be mindful of our relationship with the Earth. It is my goal as a researcher, educator and citizen to harness the tools of engineering for environmentally sound plastics production and use.
The Plastics Recycling Infrastructure is Flawed
Polymers are large molecules made up of many repeating units. They exhibit diverse mechanical, thermal and chemical properties that make them suitable for a wide range of applications. They are called "plastics" because in theory they can be reshaped multiple times into new products—that is, they are recyclable. In practice, unfortunately, remelting and forming new packaging often degrades the properties of these recycled products, as they are contaminated with impurities from food, labels and other materials.
With the introduction of fines for littering and increasing environmental awareness, the fraction of waste Americans recycle increased steadily starting in the 1970s. In recent decades, however, recycling rates have stalled due to limited technological and logistical options for the materials collected from residential and industrial sites. Today, chemical and polymer companies have become experts at making new plastic products that are durable and inexpensive. Since this new "virgin" plastic is cheap, there is little incentive for using the recycled versions if properties are compromised in any way. Improving recycling performance depends on several complex factors.
The Key to Recycling Plastics: People
The first and most important variable is that people need to participate. In general, Americans show a strong commitment to using recycle bins—when they are made available. But far too many large event centers and point sources of plastics waste do not prioritize collection of recyclable items. Furthermore, the public is confused about which plastic types can and should end up in the recycling bin.
Complex plastic products such as multi-layer film and electronics housings are more difficult to recycle. And current trends suggest that manufacturers are shifting to more complex materials. Bright, multicolored designs end up as a dull brown color when the different packages are melted down. Advanced functionality such as embedded electronics, oxygen barrier layers and other exciting technologies have the unfortunate downside of decreasing the package value in a recycled stream, because separations are difficult and costly.
The technology to sort different varieties of plastic is also lagging. The quality of a recycled plastic depends on its purity. It must be decontaminated from food waste, labels and other polymer types before it is melted down and resold to a product maker. While some automated technologies exist, a large amount of the sorting is still done by hand and the results are imperfect at best.
Once industry demands high quality recycled plastic, then reprocessors will have the confidence to produce a consistent stream to replace some or all of the virgin material they use in their products. The industry needs to standardize the metrics by which the quality of recycle streams are measured.
This wish list for improving the recycling infrastructure may seem insurmountable, but public-private consortia like the REMADE institute are gathering industry stakeholders, university researchers and national labs to tackle the challenge.
An Urgent Call to Action
In July 2017, China announced that it would stop accepting imports of certain classes of waste that come from the recycled streams in other parts of the world. These included contaminated bales of mixed plastics and forms that are challenging to reprocess. This has left piles of waste plastics sitting on loading docks at municipal recycling facilities around the U.S., Canada and Europe.
At the same time, the public outcry over the plastics pollution problem is growing. From the recent efforts to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to the viral image of a turtle with a straw in its nose that led to widespread rejection of drinking straws, the public is increasingly aware of and demanding solutions to the problem.
Where Do We Go From Here?
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation is a U.K.-based charitable organization that is focused on environmental issues. The foundation has called for a circular economy approach to work toward a new plastics economy. They are working with business, government and academia to shift the way humans consume. Currently society's throwaway culture supports a linear economy in which items, especially plastics, are used once and tossed out. In a circular economy, plastics would be designed, manufactured and collected in such a way that they could easily be broken down, separated and recycled. As an example, a thoughtfully designed cellphone could be separated into plastics, electronics, glass and other components, and each stream could then be recycled into something just as high quality the second time around—hence the phrase "circular economy."
The concept introduces a three-pronged approach to eliminate unnecessary plastics we consume, innovate new packaging designs that are more easily recycled or reused, and recirculate more of the plastics we do use through appropriate diversion and reprocessing strategies.
How does the circular economy work? Ellen MacArthur Foundation / CC BY-SA
The time is ripe for innovation, but academics, regulatory agencies and stakeholders from multiple points in the value chain must work together. The Plastics Engineering Department here at UMass Lowell is poised to take on the challenge. We are working on new biodegradable polymer recipes and new processes for recycling plastics. We are sharing our findings with the public, collaborating with industry-leading partners and educating next-generation plastics engineers so they can be leaders of change.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Julia Conley
Climate campaigners on Friday expressed hope that policymakers who are stalling on taking decisive climate action would reconsider their stance in light of new warnings from an unlikely source: two economists at J.P. Morgan Chase.
Tensions are continuing to rise in Canada over a controversial pipeline project as protesters enter their 12th day blockading railways, demonstrating on streets and highways, and paralyzing the nation's rail system
Colorado River Has Lost 1.5 Billion Tons of Water to the Climate Crisis, 'Severe Water Shortages' May Follow
California is headed toward drought conditions as February, typically the state's wettest month, passes without a drop of rain. The lack of rainfall could lead to early fire conditions. With no rain predicted for the next week, it looks as if this month will be only the second time in 170 years that San Francisco has not had a drop of rain in February, according to The Weather Channel.
The last time San Francisco did not record a drop of rain in February was in 1864 as the Civil War raged.
"This hasn't happened in 150 years or more," said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability to The Guardian. "There have even been a couple [of] wildfires – which is definitely not something you typically hear about in the middle of winter."
While the Pacific Northwest has flooded from heavy rains, the southern part of the West Coast has seen one storm after another pass by. Last week, the U.S. Drought Monitor said more Californians are in drought conditions than at any time during 2019, as The Weather Channel reported.
The dry winter has included areas that have seen devastating fires recently, including Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties. If the dry conditions continue, those areas will once again have dangerously high fire conditions, according to The Mercury News.
"Given what we've seen so far this year and the forecast for the next few weeks, I do think it's pretty likely we'll end up in some degree of drought by this summer," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported.
Another alarming sign of an impending drought is the decreased snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. The National Weather Service posted to Twitter a side-by-side comparison of snowpack from February 2019 and from this year, illustrating the puny snowpack this year. The snow accumulated in the Sierra Nevadas provides water to roughly 30 percent of the state, according to NBC Los Angeles.
Right now, the snowpack is at 53 percent of its normal volume after two warm and dry months to start the year. It is a remarkable decline, considering that the snowpack started 2020 at 90 percent of its historical average, as The Guardian reported.
"Those numbers are going to continue to go down," said Swain. "I would guess that the 1 March number is going to be less than 50 percent."
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center forecast that the drier-than-average conditions may last through April.
NOAA said Northern California will continue deeper into drought through the end of April, citing that the "persistent high pressure over the North Pacific Ocean is expected to continue, diverting storm systems to the north and south and away from California and parts of the Southwest," as The Weather Channel reported.
As the climate crisis escalates and the world continues to heat up, California should expect to see water drawn out of its ecosystem, making the state warmer and drier. Increased heat will lead to further loss of snow, both as less falls and as more of it melts quickly, according to The Guardian.
"We aren't going to necessarily see less rain, it's just that that rain goes less far. That's a future where the flood risk extends, with bigger wetter storms in a warming world," said Swain, as The Guardian reported.
The Guardian noted that while California's reservoirs are currently near capacity, the more immediate impact of the warm, dry winter will be how it raises the fire danger as trees and grasslands dry out.
"The plants and the forests don't benefit from the water storage reservoirs," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported. "If conditions remain very dry heading into summer, the landscape and vegetation is definitely going to feel it this year. From a wildfire perspective, the dry years do tend to be the bad fire years, especially in Northern California."
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