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Potential Progress on Plastics

Andy Koenigsberg

Aug 7, 2021

A recent article in Science Daily caught my eye: “Solving the plastic shortage with a new chemical catalyst.” WHAT?

Apparently, there is a shortage of propylene. Propylene is a monomer, a precursor chemical used to make polypropylene (that’s PP, number 5 on the recycle triangle hit parade). PP is one of the most widely used plastics. Seems the economic distortions caused by the pandemic which have caused a shortage of lumber have hit the plastic industry as well.

Now, if more plastics were recycled, we would solve this problem. Right? Well . . . no. Making new plastic from old plastic is hard. All the thousands of chemicals put into plastics that soften, harden, fireproof, color, resist solvents or whatever make recycling very difficult. The process is also very energy intensive and costly compared to making virgin plastic. The end product is also inferior. As a result, less than 10% of plastics ever get recycled. The rest? Landfilled, burned or broken down into nanoplastics, tiny or microscopic particles which can be found everywhere on land, the oceans, and even in your body.

New research published in the journal Science estimates that we put over 9 million metric tons of plastic into the oceans every year. The authors estimate that "The cost of ignoring the accumulation of persistent plastic pollution in the environment could be enormous. The rational thing to do is to act as quickly as we can to reduce emissions of plastic to the environment."

This projection should not come as a surprise to anyone with two brain cells to rub together, but quantifying the problem puts the potential outcome into sharp relief.

So, what do we do beyond tossing our plastic containers into recycling bins and hoping for the best?

Maine decided to take the bull moose by the antlers on that question. The state recently passed a law which makes manufacturers accountable for the packaging they create. Companies are now on the hook for recycling, repurposing, and reusing packaging waste, instead of us, the taxpayer. According to the Boston Globe, the law will require major companies “to track the type and amount of packaging [and] pay an annual fee covering the cost per ton of processing [of] . . . all packaging that ends up in the waste stream.” Not just plastic but cardboard and bags as well.

This approach is nothing new. Europe has had these laws for decades, according to the Globe. The result has been corporate innovation to put less plastic and other packaging into the waste stream. U.S. companies are already complaining that the law will raise consumer costs. News flash – we’re already paying to deal with this problem through higher taxes and fees we pay for disposal. Besides, these same companies are already doing it in Europe. A similar law is being considered in Massachusetts.

All this brings me to another Science Daily article, which describes a new type of plastic called Poly-Di-Ketoenamine [die-key’-toe-eh-nah-mean] or PDK. The article says that PDK can be recycled repeatedly without loss in quality. Unlike all other plastics, PDK is chemically designed to be recyclable in a “cheap and easy” process. Put PDK into a specific acid, and the monomer “DK” separates out, leaving all the additives behind. PDK will work for everything from cups to car bumpers.

Not only that, but the precursor chemicals can be made by fermenting plant materials using engineered microbes. Sort of like how beer is brewed, which is very cool. PDK is estimated to be cost-competitive with petroleum-based plastics as well. This process would dovetail nicely with laws like the one in Maine.

By the way, the research to develop PDK was funded by the Department of Energy. So yes, you and I paid for the research, but as I said above, we are already paying for the problems caused by plastic pollution. Paying for the technology to create a solution is paying it forward.

I have written about the circular economy before and how it would take laws incentivizing private companies to change their processes, and stop externalizing costs such as packaging waste and end-of-life disposal. Innovation by private companies and government can lead to a sustainable economy. All it takes is leadership.

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