There is little disagreement that plastic waste is a significant global health and environmental problem, and that mechanical recycling is not a complete solution. Product restrictions may sometimes be appropriate – in particular, when viable alternatives are universally available, and the effects are not unequally distributed. However, it is unrealistic to suggest that we can “ban” our way to a sustainable plastic-free society.
Plastics have leapfrogged 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 of manufacture and safety, among myriad other uses.
Proposals to eliminate plastics should include an examination of alternatives and consideration of possible unintended consequences. For example, lightweight plastics are important in our transportation sector for increasing fuel efficiency and reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. Would we go back to manufacturing more energy-intensive materials instead? If so, what are the disposal, emissions, toxicity, reduction, labor and other characteristics associated with these other materials? Which communities will be most affected?
One reason mechanical recycling has been inadequate is the lack of widely available, consistent collection and sorting infrastructure. About 30 million rural and 15 million suburban American homes lack curbside recycling. This is not a problem with plastic; This is an investment/infrastructure problem. Just as we can deliver mail to every household in the country, we can choose to invest in collecting recyclables from them.
Other challenges include the limited types of plastics that can be recycled mechanically, and even then, only a few times. Not only does advanced recycling technology provide solutions to these two issues, but my proposal is bigger – the root cause of our waste problems, the linear model of consumption.
In the linear model, we extract natural resources, convert them into usable products and, once used, most 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 more and more acres dedicated to landfills. In contrast, nature has long shown us that sustainable systems are spherical. Like the water cycle, in a circular system, what is taken in is replenished, and what is left is reused. Nothing gets wasted. This is the approach we should emulate.
The advanced recycling of plastics is a step towards transitioning to a circular economy. We take “end of life” plastic, and it “decomposes” into its base building blocks using heat (but not oxygen, so it’s not burning/incinerated, as widely incorrect) cracked up to be). Those building blocks can then be used to make another useful item, and so on, over and over again.
Almost all plastics can be processed using advanced recycling, vastly expanding the possibilities of reducing waste and reducing their use from petroleum extraction. In addition, these systems create a market for what was previously considered waste, with associated economic incentives for molecular re-manufacturing and their recovery for reuse.
The call to ban plastics universally diverts the focus and energy in the wrong direction. Instead, let us deploy a mix of imagination and pragmatism to apply policy and regulatory tools to unleash innovation. Exciting work is happening right now that grapples with historical challenges. It is time to focus our energies on promoting the creation and deployment of viable, innovative solutions to eliminate waste while leveraging the positives of plastics in the circular economy. The potential is vast and exciting.