LESS THAN 10% OF ALL PLASTIC TRASH EVER PRODUCED HAS BEEN RECYCLED. IS THIS THE BREAKTHROUGH WE’VE BEEN WAITING FOR?

Ensia discusses how little plastic is recycled. But there may be a breakthrough. A process known as chemical recycling offers a promising way to turn used products into new ones with a minimum of waste.

Plastic. It’s not hard to see how anyone who is appalled at the despoliation of the environment could think that the world would be better without it. Nearly 10% of the world’s oil is used in making it. It has enabled the proliferation of cheap goods — cramming closets, landfills and otherwise-unspoiled places where it could remain for decades, if not centuries.

Yet, because it’s so much lighter than the steel and glass it has replaced in vehicles and elsewhere, plastic has massively reduced fossil fuel emissions. And in the midst of a global pandemic, the need to securely protect food and personal items with impermeable packaging is essential.

Like it or not, plastic is going to be with us for a while. Can we learn to get along?

Conventional recycling, in which waste plastic is collected, sorted, cleaned, shredded, and then melted down and pelletized to be reused, has the potential to ameliorate the problem — except that it isn’t working. Less than 10% of all the plastic trash ever produced has been recycled. There are a lot of reasons for this, but most of them come down to the question of value. That’s because every time plastic is recycled in this manner, it loses value.

But there is good news on this front: chemical recycling. Sometimes known as advanced recycling, it’s a process that decomposes plastics to basic components called monomers, or even further into simpler compounds, removing impurities, then reassembling these ingredients into virgin plastic that is indistinguishable from new. With chemical recycling, items that previously were being downcycled can now be turned into constituent materials that can be recycled indefinitely with no loss in clarity, quality or performance.

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