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Pollution

Plastics crisis

by Bibiana Campos Seijo
May 25, 2019 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 97, ISSUE 21

 

Plastics are everywhere. We’ve all seen the pictures of beaches covered in so much waste that you can’t see the sand. We’ve all seen animals wearing plastic rings from drink multipacks around their necks. Earlier this month, Victor Vescovo, a private equity investor and undersea explorer, claimed to have found a plastic bag and candy wrappers 10,927 m under the ocean’s surface, at the southern end of the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific.

The Mariana Trench is one of the least explored and most remote locations on the planet. Yet our waste has found its way into this underwater world, which is surprising and worrying. To determine to what extent the fish in the trench are also affected by this global crisis, scientists are planning to analyze the animals found at the bottom to quantify how much plastic is inside them.

Plastics are easy and increasingly cheap to produce. They are also highly desirable since they offer sought-after qualities such as strength, light weight, corrosion resistance, and malleability. With them we can create all kinds of things that make our lives more comfortable, convenient, and safe. Just look around you: bottles, bags, toys, food packaging, helmets, syringes, and more. Unfortunately, some of the characteristics that make plastics such a ubiquitous material also make them environmentally persistent. The majority of plastics used today are not biodegradable, a problem that is compounded by the fact that most plastics are not recycled and instead find their way into landfills or are simply discarded into the environment. There is no question that there’s an urgent need to reimagine plastics.

To discuss the huge issue of the environmental impact of plastics, the Chemical Sciences Roundtable organized a workshop that brought together members of the chemical and chemical engineering communities at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in Washington, DC, on May 9–10. The Chemical Sciences Roundtable is a standing roundtable of the National Academies established in 1998 and designed to provide an “apolitical forum to enhance understanding of critical issues in chemical sciences and technology affecting the government, industrial, and academic sectors.”

The workshop was titled “Closing the Loop on the Plastics Dilemma,” and it was focused on connecting all stages of the plastics life cycle, from product design to end-of-life uses. Its organizers hoped to identify new approaches that may mitigate plastics’ environmental impact, decrease their persistence, and improve their recycling via mechanical and chemical means.

One of the most interesting talks was delivered by Eric Beckman from the University of Pittsburgh. Beckman leads the team that was one of the winners of last year’s Circular Materials Challenge from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. The competition supports innovation that can be scaled up to create a circular economy for plastics that keeps them out of the environment. Beckman’s team proposed using nanotechnology to design recyclable materials to replace multilayer packaging.

In his presentation, Beckman noted that more and more people are achieving standards of living that allow them to buy plastic-containing products. By 2030 we are going to have 3 billion more people across the globe becoming part of the “consuming” class, he said. Plastics will survive in the environment for a long time to come. According to Beckman, we are putting 10 million metric tons of synthetic polymeric material in the ocean each year; if we continue at that rate, by 2050, the mass of polymer in the ocean will outweigh that of the fish.

Sobering stats. I invite you to view the presentations, which are available on the National Academies website, and related coverage by C&EN at cenm.ag/recyclingrevamp.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.

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