Every minute around the world, almost one million plastic bottles are purchased. As the environmental impact of that plastic tide swells into a political issue, packaged goods sellers and retailers, pressured to stem the flow of single-use bottles and containers, are coming up with new ideas and technologies to solve the problem.
Plastic production has surged in the past 50 years, responding to the widespread demand for inexpensive, single-use disposable products that are devastating the environment. And, while images of plasticdebris-covered beaches and marine animals dead from eating plastic have triggered public outrage, it won’t stop anytime soon.
The oil industry is pouring billions into new facilities to produce more plastics, particularly in Asia, the biggest regional producer of plastic and plastic waste.
Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles are commonly used for soft drinks and mineral water, but can also be used for other household or personal care products. Data from Euromonitor International shows that more than 480 billion of these bottles were sold last year alone – almost one million every minute.
Rosemarie Downey, global head of packaging research at market research company Euromonitor International, told Reuters that adopting circular design principles in packaging, which considers the entire lifecycle of a product, including use and reuse, is one way for brands to address surplus waste at the outset and can assist recovery, recycling, and reuse in order to reduce the damaging impact of plastic waste in the environment. “Ultimately, mindful consumption of plastic is a global duty of everyone,” Downey said. “Consumers have their part to play to help realize zero-litter, as do corporate players in their use and handling, and governments in providing the necessary, optimized waste management infrastructure.”
The European Union has voted to outlaw 10 single-use plastic items, including straws, forks and knives, by 2021. It has also set targets for all plastic packaging, the top source of plastic waste, to be recyclable by 2030.
All Waste Plastic Could Be Recreated as New Plastic
Faced with this difficult problem, scientists and corporate product designers alike have been searching for ways to keep single-use plastic items from proliferating in the environment.
The fact that plastics do not break down but accumulate in our ecosystems is a major environmental problem. But at Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden, a research group led by Professor Henrik Thunman, who heads the Division of Energy Technology at the Department of Space, Earth and Environment, sees the resilience of plastic as an asset.
The nondegradable character of plastic that makes it such an environmental disaster also makes it a candidate for circular usage, creating a true value for used plastic, and thus an economic incentive to collect it, Thunman explains.
“We should not forget that plastic is a fantastic material – it gives us products that we could otherwise only dream of,” Thunman said. “The problem is that it is manufactured at such low cost, that it has been cheaper to produce new plastics from oil and fossil gas than from reusing plastic waste.”
Now, through experimenting with chemical recovery via steam cracking of plastic, Thunman’s research group at Chalmers has developed an efficient process for breaking any type of plastic waste down to a molecular level. The resulting gases can then be transformed into new plastics of the same quality as the original plastic.
“Through finding the right temperature, which is around 850 degrees Celsius, and the right heating rate and residence time, we have been able to demonstrate the proposed method at a scale where we turn 200 kg of plastic waste an hour into a useful gas mixture. That can then be recycled at the molecular level to become new plastic materials of virgin quality,” says Thunman.
The new process could transform today’s plastic factories into recycling refineries, right within the framework of their existing infrastructure.
Coca-Cola Makes Bottles From Plastic Ocean Debris
On October 15, the Coca-Cola company unveiled the first sample bottle made using recovered and recycled marine plastics, demonstrating that plastic ocean debris can be used in recycled packaging for food and drinks.
The sample bottle is the result of a partnership between Ioniqa Technologies, Indorama Ventures, Mares Circulares (Circular Seas) and The Coca-Cola Company.
Although enhanced recycling is still in its infancy, the partners produced the sample marine plastic bottles as a proof of concept for what the technology may achieve in time.
About 300 sample bottles have been produced using 25 percent recycled marine plastic retrieved from the Mediterranean Sea and beaches.
Some countries are trying to control the plastic tide through legislation. The Canadian government led by Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in June announced a ban on single-use plastics by 2021, joining over two dozen countries that have made similar moves.
Although specific details have yet to be released, Canada’s announcement puts pressure on big companies like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo that sell billions of single-use plastic bottles.
Writing for “Corporate Knights,” a Canadian publication, Tim Nash said on June 17, “The massive amount of plastic waste in our water systems is becoming impossible to ignore. We know about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, we’ve seen the large amounts of plastic being found in whales that wash up on shore, and we’ve heard about the latest study from WWF showing that the average person ingests a credit card’s worth of microplastics every single week.”
“Although specific details have yet to be released, Canada’s announcement puts pressure on big companies like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo that sell billions of single-use plastic bottles,” states Nash.
HP Constructs Computers With Ocean-Bound Plastics
Computer-maker HP Inc., a member of NextWave Plastics, on September 27 announced the launch of the HP Elite Dragonfly, the world’s first notebook manufactured with ocean-bound plastics.
The HP Elite Dragonfly is the world’s lightest, most compact business computer, weighing less than one kilogram (2.2 pounds). Its speaker enclosure component is made with 50 percent post-consumer recycled plastic, including five percent ocean-bound plastics.
The HP Elite Dragonfly is one of three HP products made with ocean-bound plastics.
To ensure their ocean-bound plastics efforts continue to scale, HP commits to including ocean-bound plastic material in all new HP Elite and HP Pro desktop and notebook computers launching in 2020.
In addition to protecting the oceans and the planet, HP’s ocean-bound plastic programs are also creating new opportunities for economic advancement and education in local communities. In Haiti, HP’s partnership with the First Mile Coalition has helped create more than 1,100 income opportunities for adults in the country and has provided 150 children with quality education, food, and medical assistance.
NextWave member companies are establishing ocean-bound plastics as a commodity to decrease the volume of plastic waste before it enters the ocean.
“Since joining NextWave Plastics last year, HP has been a standout partner, and we are thrilled to see the team continue to lead the way in scaling one of the most effective supply chains that is turning off the tap on ocean-bound plastics while improving the local community,” said Dune Ives, executive director of Lonely Whale, the convening entity for NextWave Plastics, a consortium of worldwide businesses committed to scaling the use of ocean-bound plastics.
“There are currently more than 86 million metric tons of plastic in our ocean, and each year, over eight million metric tons of additional plastic enters the ocean,” Ives said. “We are proud that our member companies continue to scale commercially viable and operational ocean-bound plastics supply chains – keeping plastic in the economy and out of the ocean.”
NextWave member companies are currently on track, in alignment with UN Sustainable Development Goal 14.1, to divert a minimum of 25,000 tonnes of plastics, the equivalent of 1.2 billion single-use plastic water bottles, from entering the ocean by the end of the year 2025.
Ellen Jackowski, global head of Sustainability Strategy & Innovation, HP Inc, said, “Our circular economy strategy is about shifting our production to eliminate waste and enable a system that can sustain our levels of consumption in harmony with nature and our singular planet Earth for generations to come.”
© Environment News Service (ENS) 2019. All rights reserved.