Plastic Wastes and its Management

Plastic seems all pervasive and unavoidable. Since the 1960s our use of plastic has increased dramatically, and subsequently, the portion of our garbage that is made up of plastic has also increased from 1% of the total municipal solid waste stream (household garbage) to approximately 13% (US Environmental Protection Agency).

Plastic products range from things like containers and packaging (soft drink bottles, lids, shampoo bottles) to durable goods (think appliances, furniture and cars) and non-durable goods including things from a plastic party tray to medical devices. Sometimes marked with a number and a chasing arrow, there is an illusion that all plastics are recyclable, and therefore recycled. But there are a number of problems with this assumption.

plastic-wastes

While use and consumption of plastic is increasingly high, doubts about viable options for reuse, recycling and disposal are also on the rise. Complications such as the increasing number of additives used alter the strength, texture, flexibility, colour, resistance to microbes, and other characteristics of plastics, make plastics less recyclable. Additionally, there is very little market value in some plastics, leading municipalities to landfill or incinerate plastics as waste. Based on figures from the EPA (2011 data) only 8% of plastic materials are recovered through recycling.

Another major concern about plastics in the waste stream is their longevity and whether or not they are truly biodegrade. It is estimated that most plastics would take 500-1000 years to break down into organic components. Because of this longevity and the low rate of recycling, much of our plastic waste ends up in landfills or as litter. Some of this plastic waste makes its way via rivers and wind to the ocean. Garbage barges, and the trans-continental transport of recyclable materials also lead to an increasing amount of plastics in our oceans and waterways.

Plastic waste directly and indirectly affects living organisms throughout the ecosystem, including an increasingly high impact on marine life at a macro and micro scale. According to United Nations, almost 80% of marine debris is plastic. Policy enforcement remains weak, global manufacture of plastics continues to increase, and the quantity of plastic debris in the oceans, as well as on land, is likely to increase.

With limited sustainable recovery of plastics, there is a growing global movement to reduce the generation of plastic. Certain types of plastic may be ’safer‘ for the environment than others, however, there are troubling issues associated with all of them, leading to the conclusion that action is needed to remove plastic waste, and stricter controls are required to limit new sources of plastic pollution.

biodegradable-plastics

Efforts such as light weighting of packaging and shifts to compostable plastics are options. Many people use eco-friendly bags for the sake of green living. Policies limiting the use of plastics such as bottle bills and bag bans are other ways to decrease the production and consumption of plastics.

Mining the debris fields in our oceans and turning plastic waste into usable materials, from socks made of fishing line to fuel made from a variety of plastic debris, is one way to mitigate the current situation. You can do your part by using renewable cotton bags.

Note: This excerpt is being published with the permission of our collaborative partner Be Waste Wise. The original excerpt and its video recording can be found at this link

How Polyurethane is Better for the Environment Than Plastic

Stated by urethane manufacturers, today’s manufacturing community is becoming increasingly mindful of environmental impacts that arise during industrial processes. Industrial recycling, waste to energy systems, and emissions improvements are just part of a wide-ranging effort to minimize the impact of manufacturing on the environment.

Plastics have become a lightning rod for environmental commentators, as pictures go viral of various waste being found in far-flung areas of our planet.

Something that is not discussed in these discourses is the wide variety of plastics currently available, and how not all plastics degrade in the same fashion. Polyurethane has been unduly spotlighted in these negative conversations.

With limited resources available to the public on the matter, there is plenty of misinformation which we hope to clarify in this article.

Plastic Waste & A Start to Policy Changes

There have been some extremely shocking photos and stories that have come out in recent years with regard to plastic waste. Photos of all sizes of plastic waste being found in rivers, oceans, and forests have been circulated millions of times.

Some cities and countries have started enacting policy changes in a reactionary fashion after seeing the widespread outpouring of anger on social media.

Most plastics that have been illustrated in these campaigns are thermoplastics, which amount to well over 95% of all plastic found during ocean studies. Polyurethanes, however, account for less than 2% of all waste detected during ocean surveys.

Damaging Thermoplastics

In thermoplastics, no molecular bonds are holding the individual strands of polymer together. It’s held together by weak ionic forces, called Van Der Waal forces.

Think of these bonds as a ball of yarn, essentially being held together by the tangled ends of molecular chains. Simply put, the plastic will break down until the last thing left is individual strands. These are the “micro-plastics” which are commonly talked about in the news.

Finer than a human hair, sometimes even microscopic, this is the smallest the material will degrade to. Individual atoms will not separate from the polymer strand and will continue to linger in the environment for decades.

Eco-Friendly Polyurethane

If you aren’t familiar with cast polyurethane it is considered a thermoset plastic. Do not confuse these with the thermoplastic we just discussed.

Polyurethane differs in that once the polymer has been reacted, the individual strands change on an atomic level and crosslink between each other. At these crosslinks, a new molecule is formed, entirely changing the properties of the material.

This molecular cross-linking is what makes polyurethane much more resilient in heavy-duty applications. Once the material has reached the end of its life, it can not be melted down and reformed.

Don’t think of this as a disadvantage since polyurethane materials will generally last longer than any thermoplastic equivalent. This minimizes the amount of polyurethane entering the waste stream right at the initial source.

Recycling Polyurethanes

There are multiple avenues that can be pursued when it comes to the recycling of polyurethane. Parts may be chemically reacted to turn back into their prepolymer state, however, the cost involved in this process can be quite steep.

When polyurethane breaks down in the environment, it will not break down into its individual polymer strands. Instead, individual bonds are broken down between molecules, releasing individual molecules into the environment.

These molecules are almost exclusively inert compounds that will not react or accumulate toxicity in natural environments.

Microbial degradation has become increasingly prevalent, especially in the area of fungi. Scientists have been able to find microorganisms that are well-suited for breaking downcast urethane products ecologically.

Polyurethane For the Win

The chemical makeup of polyurethane, combined with the increased lifetime of individual parts, means you can lower your commercial ecological footprint. Polyurethanes are non-toxic to the environment as they break down, and do not contain BPA’s or other chemicals which can interfere with endocrine systems.

The minimal effects on the environment will make this polymer even more desirable as we become increasingly environmentally conscious.

Circular Economy: Viewpoint of Plastic

Pieces of plastic have been trying to get our attention. The first scientific reports of plastic pollution in oceans were in the early 1970s. This waste plastic soaks up other pollutants at up to a million times the concentration in water, harming and killing sea life worldwide. From the point of view of the plastic, we have convincingly failed with solutions. Over the past 40 years the problem has grown around 100 times, with now over 8 million tonnes of plastic waste added to oceans per year.

plastic-bottle

Everyone is aware about ways for plastic to not become waste. We can set up redesign, sharing, refill, recycling and even composting. When it comes to creating practical possibilities for not making waste, people are super smart. But when it comes to making policy to install this practice throughout the economy, which has been the aim of circular economy for the past four decades, we’re consistently collectively stupid. I call this mob thinking.

We have intelligent activists, business people, experts and officials unintentionally thinking like a mob? always bringing forward the same decades old policy weapons. When these weapons don’t work there is a discussion about strategy but not any actual new strategy, just talk about how forcefully to use the same old policy weapons. This is how it’s been possible for waste management, waste regulation and the unsolved waste problem to all grow in tandem for so long.

If the piece of plastic had a voice in the circular economy debate what might it say? It would remind us to beware mob thinking. Today’s problems are solvable only by trying new thinking and new policy weapons. Precycling is an example. The piece of plastic doesn’t mind whether it’s part of a product that’s longlife or refilled or shared or refurbished or recycled or even composted (so long as it’s fully biodegradable). It doesn’t even mind being called ‘waste’ so long as it’s on its way to a new use. Action that ensures any of these is precycling.

Our piece of plastic does mind about ending up as ecosystem waste. It does not wish to join 5 trillion other pieces of plastic abandoned in the world’s oceans. It would be horrified to poison a fish or starve a sea bird. Equally it does not want to be perpetually entombed in a landfill dump or transformed into climate destabilising greenhouse gases by incineration.

The two possible outcomes for a piece of plastic, remaining as a resource or being dumped as ecological waste, are the same fates awaiting every product. Our economies and our futures depend on our ambition in arranging the right outcome. The old policy weapons of prescriptive targets and taxes, trying to force more of one waste management outcome or less of another, are largely obsolete.

Circular economy can be fully and quickly implemented by policy to make markets financially responsible for the risk of products becoming ecological waste. Some ever hopeful pieces of plastic would be grateful if we would get on with doing this.

Reference: Governments Going Circular best practice case study of precycling premiums

Plastic Wastes and Role of EPR

In just a few decades plastics have become omnipresent in our society. But, unfortunately, the consequences of their use last far beyond their useful lifetime. Everyone is aware of their overwhelming dispersion in our landscapes. The situation in the oceans is not better [1]. As a reaction, a few thoughts spring to my mind.

First of all, it is clear that the industry is assuming very little responsibility, and that Public Administrations are complicit with this. Extended producer responsibility (abbreviated as EPR) only affects –and only partially– those plastics used as light packaging, in vehicles, in tyres or as part of electric and electronic equipment, not any of the others. Also, recycling levels are not sufficiently high, as a result of poor separate collection systems and inefficient treatment facilities. As a consequence, society has to face not only the problems created by those materials which are not recycled, but also has to assume a high share of the costs of managing them as waste.

Secondly, it illustrates the importance of the quality of the materials that we aim to recycle, and thus the importance of separate waste collection; for all materials, but particularly for biowaste. Although most composting and anaerobic digestion facilities have the capacity to separate some of the impurities (of which around 40% can be plastics), this separation is far from perfect. Two recent studies confirm that the quality of compost is influenced by the presence of impurities in biowaste [2] and that, in turn, the presence of impurities is influenced by several factors [3], among which particularly the type of separate collection scheme, door to door separate collection models being those presenting better results.

Thirdly, it makes clear the urgency to adopt measures that address the root of the problem. High quality separate collection and sound waste treatment are necessary, and allow enormous room for improvement, but they are end-of-pipe solutions. It is also important to promote greener consumption patterns through environmental awareness campaigns, but this is not enough either. We have to address the problem where it is created. And this requires measures of higher impact, such as taxes on certain products (e.g. disposable ones) or on certain materials, compulsory consideration of eco-design criteria, generalisation of the extended producer responsibility or prohibition of certain plastics (e.g. oxo-degradable ones) or of certain uses (e.g. microplastic beads in cosmetics). One can think that these measures are a bit too hard, but honestly, after wandering around beaches and mountains, and finding plastics absolutely everywhere, I am bit disappointed with the outcome of soft solutions.

On 16th January 2018 the European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy was adopted [4]. A number of measures will need to be applied by the European Union (listed in Annex I of the Strategy), by Member States and by the industry (Annex II), but also by Regional Governments and Local Authorities. No doubt that implementing the Strategy will bring about significant advances, but only time will say if it is sufficient to address the huge challenge we face.

The European Union has also recently adopted the much-awaited Directive 2019/904 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 5 June 2019 on the reduction of the impact of certain plastic products on the environment [5], which introduces several bans and restrictions on different uses and materials. This is indeed a huge step, which needs to be followed by others, both in Europe, but also elsewhere, as this is truly a global challenge.

Note: An earlier version of this article was published in February 2018: https://mailchi.mp/db1fd794d528/sent-11-april-2018

References

[1] See for example: https://tinyurl.com/yxra3cod

[2] Campos Rodrigues, L., Puig Ventosa, I., López, M., Martínez, X. (2016) Anàlisi de la incidència dels impropis de la FORM sobre la qualitat del compost de les plantes de compostatge de Catalunya https://tinyurl.com/y37ncton

[3] Puig-Ventosa, I., Freire-González, J., Jofra-Sora, M. (2013) Determining factors for the presence of impurities in selectively collected biowaste, Waste Management and Research, 31: 510-517.

[4] The strategy and several accompanying documents can be found in this portal: http://ec.europa.eu/environment/waste/plastic_waste.htm

[5] Directive 2019/904 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 5 June 2019 on the reduction of the impact of certain plastic products on the environment.