Although they have caused much damage, the future of plastics looks somewhat promising. Plastics, aka polymers, can be made from many natural materials, but most are made by reconstituting the primary chemicals that come from oil, natural gas, or coal. There are 2 main types of polymers in which all plastics can be grouped: Thermoset and Thermoplastics. Thermosets are plastics that irreversibly solidify or “set” when heated or cured, much like an egg when cooked. Some of these include mattresses, cushions, tubs, furniture, and adhesives. Thermoplastics are plastics that soften when heated and harden when cooled much like water and ice. Examples of thermoplastics include packaging, carpet fibers, microwave containers, and electric cable sheathing.
Plastic pollution has reached nearly every corner of the globe. There’s an estimated 260,000 tons of plastic floating in the world’s oceans. Scientists have even discovered microplastics deep in the Arctic ice. Reports say that up to 12,000 pieces were found per liter of ice.
Plastics in the ocean may not even be our biggest problem. Depending on the location, it’s estimated that soil plastic concentrations are 4-23 times higher than in the ocean. Soils get polluted in many ways, but sewage is a major contributor. Because of acts such as littering, plastics get washed down sewer drains, and because sewage is often used as fertilizer, several thousand tons of microplastics end up in our soils each year. And as chlorinated plastics break down, they release harmful chemicals that leak into surrounding ground and drinking waters. Chemicals such as Bisphenol A (BPA) that leak into waters and soils can cause hormonal defects among vertebrates and invertebrates alike. Once in the body, microplastics can cause inflammation and even cross tough membranes such as the blood-brain barrier or the placenta.
Plastic Eating Enzymes
In a 2016 report published in the Science Journal, Japanese researchers discovered a species of bacteria that could break down the molecular bonds of polyester, one of the most used plastics in the world. After some tweaking and experimenting, scientist discovered that they mutated the enzyme to be even better at breaking down plastic. They are hoping to speed up the process even further and using the enzyme to recycle plastic, eliminating the need to make more.
Researchers from the National Council of Scientific and Technological Research (CONICET) in Argentina have come up with a way to turn used plastic bottles into eco-friendly bricks that are just as strong as conventional house bricks. Actually, the plastic bricks are better because they’re thinner, lighter, and have insulating abilities 5 times higher than conventional bricks.
A company called ByFusion is doing a similar thing. Their design involves a portable modular platform that shreds and compresses scrap plastic directly into bricks and uses extremely hot water to fuse them together. The plastics don’t even need to be sorted or washed beforehand. On top of that, the whole process produces 95% lower greenhouse gas emissions than concrete production.
A Netherlands company, KWS has developed a road made completely from recycled plastics. The road has a hollow space that can be used to store water temporarily, preventing flooding in extreme weather and can be used to transit cables and pipes. The benefits of a plastic road seem endless. It’s 4 times lighter than traditional roads, lasts 3 times longer, and can be built 70% faster. Since its virtually impervious to weather and weeds, little to no maintenance is required. On top of that, it offers room for further innovation like solar roads to power street lights and traffic signals, eliminating the need to burn fossil fuels for energy.
Switching to biodegradable plastics doesn’t undo the damage done by regular plastics, but it prevents further destruction. Biodegradable plastics can be made from a wide range of all-natural plant materials such as corn oil, orange peels, or starch, and do not release harmful chemicals while decomposing. Although they are very popular, one thing many people don’t know about biodegradable plastics is that their natural breakdown process won’t occur if simply thrown in a landfill with other trash. Instead, they must be treated as compost for them to decompose properly.
Each of us has the responsibility to be stewards of our world. Something as simple as sharing knowledge can have a huge impact.