By Andrew Tolve, Ode Magazine
This is part 1 of 2 in a series: Fantastic Plastic.
The final destination for most cars—after they’ve served their time in a scrapyard, that is—is a 10,000-horsepower shredding machine that, in about 60 seconds, rips them into fist-size chunks of stuff. This material is then whisked away on a conveyer belt and sorted for recycling. Steel, copper, brass, and aluminum are all separated and re-used.
But petroleum-based plastic—and there’s a lot of it in cars—presents a problem. Plastics range greatly in type and grade and therefore can’t be recycled together. That’s why they’re typically bundled together with other tough-to-recycle material (rubber, wood, fabrics, foam) and shuttled off to landfills or burned in incinerators.
Mike Biddle, president and co-founder of MBA Polymers, thinks that’s unacceptable.
“Burning [plastic] is obviously not the best thing to do for the environment and reburying it is a waste of a natural resource,” Biddle says. “Why pump oil out of the ground when we’ve already put so much energy into making these materials? Let’s just use them again.”
Mike Biddle is one of a growing number of entrepreneurs that reject the current environmental orthodoxy that “plastic is evil” and should be phased out. Eliminating plastic altogether, they argue, isn’t only unrealistic but undesirable. Without plastic, there would be no laptops, cell phones, refrigerators, toothbrushes, traffic lights or countless other products on which we’ve come to depend. Plastic is, in fact, one of the most valuable materials around. It’s durable, lightweight, adaptable to a dizzying array of applications, and—with the right mix of responsible re-use and non-petroleum-based alternatives—ecologically friendly.
“We should be celebrating plastic,” says Anthony Zolezzi, co-founder of Greenopolis and the GreenOps Recycling System, an interactive approach to giving “trash” a second life. “It’s how we abuse it and don’t re-use it that’s a problem. [Plastic is] an amazing ingredient that we should look at as a precious material, no different than we look at gold.”
Next: Turning plastic into gold
MBA Polymers has developed a technology suite that spins plastic into gold—by separating, sterilizing, melting, pelletizing and remolding plastics recovered from shredded electronics, computers and cars. The final product is as pure as virgin plastic that, unlike nearly every other recycled plastic, needs no added virgin plastic to ready it for use. The whole process consumes only 5 to 10 percent of the energy required to make virgin plastic.
“Plastics are the last frontier in terms of major material categories to be re-used,” Biddle says. “If you look at metals, glass and wood, they’re recycled at much higher rates than plastics around the world. It’s not because the plastic isn’t valuable but because it’s very difficult to separate. That’s why we’re here.”
Proponents like Biddle and Zolezzi aren’t blind to the dangers plastic poses. Additives leach into the environment, disrupting the hormonal balances of marine life. Plastic bags flap in the wind like prayer flags at the edges of many towns in the Sahara. Research by Charles Moore, founder of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, suggests that, at its densest, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch contains about 3 million pieces of plastic per square mile, a million per square kilometer.
Plastic in the oceans is gathered together by ocean currents known as gyres; the Great Garbage Patch in the Pacific Ocean is more than a mile deep. Individual pieces are on the average smaller than a pea, making them impossible to clean up and easy for fish to mistake for food. Larger fish like tuna, mahi-mahi and salmon eat the small fish that eat the plastic, and we eat the larger fish, which some scientists believe could lead to increasing rates of infertility in women, among other harmful side effects.
“The ocean is a plastic soup and these gyres are concentrators,” Moore says. “It’s like the land is flushing plastic out and the toilet bowl is the gyres, and they have this swirling motion like the toilet but it never flushes. It just collects there and spins around and around.”
The environmental damage caused by plastic is real—and requires urgent solutions. For the new plastics entrepreneurs, though, the response shouldn’t be to abolish plastic but to create and use it more responsibly. Close the loop on recycling plastic (in the U.S., a paltry 6 to 7 percent of all plastic is recycled), develop better technologies to re-purpose it, reduce packaging to the bare minimum and find renewable resources to replace petroleum-based virgin plastic. This isn’t a distant technological dream; it’s happening right now.
E-waste (from computers, phones and other information technologies) and automotive shredder residue (of the kind that MBA Polymers recycles) are some of the biggest and least visible parts of today’s plastic recycling challenge. But what about the stuff we’re asked to dispose of on a daily basis: the plastic wrapping on a new dress, the bubble wrap in a UPS box, plastic wine corks or those little bits of hard-shell plastic you can’t even identify?
Peter Lewis, founder of Byfusion in Dunedin, New Zealand, found himself motivated by this very challenge. “Only about 20 percent of plastic in the whole waste stream is identifiable,” Lewis says. “That other 80 percent is the real problem. More often than not, it quietly slides into the landfill or slides somewhere else we don’t hear about.”
Lewis developed a machine designed to deal with that other 80 percent. The machine accepts any type of plastic, no matter its type or grade, shreds it, sterilizes it and spits it out in the form of a plastic block with an interlocking design, like a Lego brick. The blocks can be assembled into garden walls, erosion barriers on the banks of rivers or noise and safety barriers along the collars of highways. In preliminary studies, the plastic blocks have proven excellent at absorbing the impact from automobiles, making them ideal fender material. “We can make products out of any type of plastic,” Lewis boasts.
This year, the town of Dunedin agreed to install the machine in its 10,000-ton-a-day plant, as long as Byfusion can prove a market demand for its blocks. Lewis is hopeful. “We just need to get this one going and I think the other areas of the world will say, ‘Well, that’s sensible, that’s affordable, it’s doable, it’s simple. Can we have a machine, too, please?’”
Not all plastic is difficult to identify: Everyone recognizes soda bottles with a big number 1 seared into their sides, for example, or laundry detergent bottles with a big number 2 embossed on their bottoms. The numbers, which range from 1 to 7, are a standard code to help consumers identify and sort the main types of plastic: Number 1 represents polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and number 2 represents high-density polyethylene (HDPE), together the most frequently recycled plastics.
Unfortunately, ease of identification often doesn’t translate to recycling success. Current estimates suggest only half of U.S. households have access to curbside recycling, and only half of those with access use it. Europe enjoys much better overall recycling rates—Switzerland recycles 80 percent of its PET plastic—though the average for numbered plastics throughout the European Union is just 20 percent. To boost these numbers, companies have come up with rewards-based communities.
RecycleBank, based out of New York City, partners with municipalities in the U.S. and the U.K. to increase landfill diversion and bolster revenue from recycled plastic and aluminum. Participating households are rewarded with coupons redeemable at participating local businesses. Statistics show that the recovery of recyclables often doubles with the RecycleBank system in place.
Andrew Tolve intends to reduce, reuse and recycle even more than he did before.
Please jump into this conversation and tell us what you think below. Is it possible to create and use plastic in an environmentally responsible way?
Stay tuned for part 2 of this series: Plastic Companies that Will Make You Happy