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Love the Earth? Embrace Plastic

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.”

(Read more: The Dangers of Plastic, The 5 Gyres Project)

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.

15 Ways to Reduce Packaging

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?

15 Ways to Reduce Packaging
Is Plastic Really That Bad?

Stay tuned for part 2 of this series: Plastic Companies that Will Make You Happy

Read more: Do Good, Green, Make a Difference, Technology

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Megan, selected from The Intelligent Optimist

Ode, the magazine for Intelligent Optimists, is an international independent journal that publishes positive news, about the people and ideas that are changing our world for the better.

47 comments

+ add your own
1:05AM PDT on May 5, 2011

New knowledge gained! Thnx for sharing

8:09PM PDT on May 1, 2011

thanks

2:40PM PDT on May 1, 2011

This is wonderful information. I hope it works out and that more cities will get and use these machines.

5:57AM PDT on Apr 26, 2011

This definitely opened my eyes a bit more. Treat your plastics like gold. Reduce your waste & recycle properly, then at least you've created a system of re-use.

9:00PM PDT on Apr 23, 2011

Interesting...

2:00PM PDT on Apr 22, 2011

I would truly love to see plastic gone. Since being a more conscientous consumer I am haunted every time I shop by the excessive plastics, but I do see the other side.... of how difficult it would be and that there is a lack of people who recycle. Have nade personal switches, reusable bags... do my own baking so no bread bags, etc. but I would love to read an article like this an just go out back and make on of these machines... so we can have effective recycling.... a fear often spoken aloud in our community..... were does the plastic we bag up end up?

9:02PM PDT on Apr 21, 2011

This is very interesting information! Thank you! :)

7:40AM PDT on Apr 20, 2011

Plastic is a petroleum based product. Since we quite desperately need to reduce our petroleum consumption (addiction) we need to reduce plastic production. There are subsitutes to make bottles, bags (corn & soy) which are biodegradable. Let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater at this junction, but reduce our use. Styrofoam containers? Plastic Bags? Any product used once or twice and is thrown away is a ridiculous and inappropriate use of energy. One way in which we can affect production is to stop buying plastics that are minimal use with maximum negative environmental impact. Our oceans are flooded with plastic and our wildlife is eating it and it is killing them. That should inspire everyone to reduce their plastic consumption (and of course be sure to recyle any plastics you use!)

8:51PM PDT on Apr 19, 2011

I dont like plastic no matter how good they seem to think it is.Glass is reusable and I always put my sauces ect in glass.Also never microwave in plastic containers use glass containers preferable.

9:29AM PDT on Apr 19, 2011

thanks for sharing!

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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of
Care2, Inc., its employees or advertisers.

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