From yarns made from plastic ocean waste to a new generation of materials that can be recycled over and over again, plastics today are being viewed more as a resource than an environmental liability.
While many believe the world’s love affair with plastic is relatively new, it actually goes back almost 200 years to Charles Goodyear. Born in New Haven, Connecticut, the young Goodyear lacked formal education, but made-up for it with his innate curiosity and ingenuity. A lifelong inventor, the self-taught chemist discovered – after accidentally dropping sulfur-treated rubber onto a hot stove top – the process of vulcanization.
Issued patent number 3,633 on June 15, 1844 for his “Improvement in India-Rubber Fabrics,” Goodyear detailed how, by combining 25 parts of India rubber with five parts of sulfur and seven parts of white lead with spirits of turpentine, he was able to create a thin, strong fabric “which may be used in lieu of paper for the covering of boxes, books, or other articles.”
He may have died in poverty at 59, but Goodyear’s legacy lives on. With the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company named after him, posthumously, Goodyear was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1976.
Soon, many others began to build on the back of his inventions, creating developments in plastics including injection molding, the patenting of nylon, and much more. In fact, many of those early plastic products, such as ‘Scotch’ tape, tufts in toothbrushes, and acrylics in paint, are still going strong, long after they were first introduced.
Addressing petroleum waste
From simple household items like spatulas to watch straps, window frames, computer keyboards, piping, and both the interiors and exteriors of cars, it is impossible to imagine a world without plastic in forms such as polyethylene, polycarbonate, polyvinyl chloride, polyurethane, and others.
From medicine to construction, plastics hold countless advantages over traditional materials such as wood and metal. Often easier to manufacturer than steel, plastics are made in huge quantities, resulting in lower costs and greater availability.
Resistant to heat, cold and corrosion, plastics are ideal for piping. Able to be molded into virtually any size or shape, plastics are perfect for everything from delicate syringes to the durable and practical siding and doors that protect homes and businesses. And from an aesthetic perspective, plastics can be made into any color, making them perfect for decorative items.
Made primarily from chemically fabricated synthetics derived from fossil fuels like oil, natural gas, and coal, plastic production – like other manufacturing processes – generates waste.
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency* (EPA), Americans also produce plastic waste and a lot of it. In fact, it adds up to an estimated 4.51 pounds (2.046 kilograms) per person, every day. Over the course of a year, this amounts to 1,646 pounds (almost 747 kg), of plastic waste for each of us.
While recycling efforts are resulting in less plastic being sent to landfill, plastics still account for 13.2 percent of the total municipal solid waste generated by material (as of the most recent figures in 2017).
Not your usual plastic
Although it seems sometime we are losing the battle against petroleum-based products, many businesses and organizations are viewing plastic waste not as an adversary but as a resource. We are familiar with recycling non-biodegradable plastic containers, but these products – specifically polyethylene and polypropylene – can only be broken-down and remade into new items a few times before they become unusable.
And while reusing plastic products and reducing our dependence on them are options, these options too are limited. Another alternative is to think far beyond the blue box, exploring bold and innovative new uses for plastic waste.
Instead of viewing plastics as a vehicle for single-use purposes, such as a takeout food container, designers are looking at long-lasting applications. Over 50 years ago, the first all-plastic chair made its debut, leading to the mass production of cheaper products, including stackable plastic lawn chairs. Today, many are going back to the inspiration of the mid-Sixties, exploring long-lasting lifestyle products made from materials like ecothylene®.
Created by Belgium-based company ecoBirdy – which recycles old plastic toys into furniture for children – ecothylene was introduced to the European market two years ago, and is a huge success.
Ecothylene’s sorting, processing and manufacturing process is far more advanced and controlled than with other products made from waste materials. Working with a professional recycling partner, the company inspects every object manually prior to sorting and quality checking to prevent contamination.
The result? Eco-friendly colourful furniture made from high-grade plastic waste and unique polymers, so no new plastic or pigment is required, making durable and highly recyclable ecothylene a welcome addition.
By comparison, according to the company, little of the 24 million tonnes of plastic waste produced annually in Europe is recycled, and a mere five percent of new items are derived from recycled plastic.
From waste to resource
Globally, a growing number of manufacturers and associations are acknowledging the many uses of petroleum waste, including the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, and PlasticsEurope.
A leading trade association, PlasticsEurope works with over 100 member companies handling the production of over 90 percent of polymers in the EU’s 27 member states. Along with showcasing the many benefits of plastics and providing education, another of the association’s mandates is to promote plastic waste as a resource.
Along with encouraging increased recycling and a reduced use of plastic through improved product design, PlasticsEurope’s focus is on “improving waste management first since this has the largest potential for increased growth, energy savings, and more jobs in Europe,” according to the association.
With key recommendations that include the restriction of recoverable/recyclable plastic waste in landfills and eco-efficient treatment options, PlasticsEurope argues that unrecyclable plastic waste is a source of energy.
“A better way of managing plastic waste which cannot be sustainably recycled would be to send it to efficient energy-from-waste facilities to produce electricity, heat or fuel for the production of cement etc. – thereby saving fossil fuels,” says the association. Other organizations such as UNEP agree that more plastic needs to be diverted from landfills.
Sadly, the Covid-19 pandemic has seen a tremendous surge in plastic waste, especially across South-East Asia. While reducing the amount of plastic used and diverting this from landfills are options, another is converting waste into economically viable resources, such as fuel.
“This resource conservation goal is very important for most of the national and local governments, where rapid industrialization and economic development is putting a lot of pressure on natural resources,” says the UNEP in the document, Converting Waste Plastics into a Resource.
“Some of the developed countries have already established commercial level resource recovery from waste plastics. Therefore, having a ‘latecomer’s advantage’, developing countries can learn from these experiences and technologies available to them.”
As technology advances, more and more plastics will be bio-engineered to become degradable, or much more easily recyclable than at present. While some environmentalists believe all plastics should disappear, this will never happen – nor should it – since plastics hold countless advantages over products like metal, wood, and glass for their durability, lack of corrosion, and strength to weight ratio, especially in the construction industry.
With bold new uses for plastic waste emerging every year, including as a replacement for coke in zinc recycling in Sweden’s Rönnskär area, what we know as “plastic” today will keep evolving, with less single-use plastic being produced, and more plastic waste being repurposed.