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Bill Nye the plastic guy and turning egg cartons into planters

by Alexander H. Tullo
June 25, 2022 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 100, Issue 23


Bottle battle

A screen cap of Coca-Cola's Bill Nye video.
Credit: Coca-Cola
Bottle head: Bill Nye talks recycling in a video for Coca-Cola.

The plastic waste issue has reached the dueling YouTube-video stage of discourse. For Earth Day, Coca-Cola produced a video to promote plastic recycling. It stars science communication celebrity Bill Nye, his head fashioned to look like a soda bottle.

Plastic is an “amazing material” he declares. The “good people at the Coca-Cola company,” he promises, feel responsible for plastic waste. “They want to turn every single plastic bottle, of whatever you wanted before, into a new bottle of whatever you want now,” he says.

Nye then goes into his usual shtick of explaining how something works. He narrates an animation of the mechanical plastic-recycling process, beginning with a consumer tossing a bottle into a recycling bin. A materials recovery facility then sorts the waste and reclaimers wash and repelletize the plastic. It ends with gleaming new bottles made from recycled plastic. “We’ve closed the loop,” he concludes.

But to the environmental group Beyond Plastics, the Bill Nye presentation was a bit much. “Coca-Cola Enlists Bill Nye the Science Sellout Guy to Mislead the Public About Plastics Recycling” read their press release.

The group produced a satirical response video. In it, a supposed representative of “America’s Beverage Companies” is about to give a similar presentation to Nye’s but is interrupted when the backdrop falls, revealing a garbage dump and incinerator. “Don’t worry, only 92% of plastics ends up here,” he says. “Plastics Recycling is a Lie” flashes on the screen.

Both videos make their points. The Coca-Cola video is a good explainer of the recycling process. But very little plastic is actually recycled today. It’s fair to say that plastics recycling is more of an aspiration than a lie. Industry really is investing heavily to boost recycling rates. And in order to make a dent in the hundreds of millions of metric tons of waste generated per year, the plastics industry will need to succeed where it failed before.


Ideas for reusing plastic

A photo of beet seeds scattered in an egg carton.
Credit: Alex Tulllo/C&EN
Tiny greenhouse: Reusing an egg carton to grow beet seedlings gives the plastic new life.

Plastic is, indeed, an amazing material, so much so that it’s a shame to use it only once before throwing it away. It is often observed that oil will spend millions of years underground only to be transformed by industry into a plastic bag that someone will use for half an hour. Reusing plastics can cut the impact of plastics down to a fraction of what it was, that is if you can’t avoid bringing them into your home to begin with.>

This Newscriptster, like many C&EN readers, is a meticulous plastics reuser who lines trash bins exclusively with old shopping bags. But it is hard to keep up with the number of bags that come home, as evidenced by a personal stash of three bags completely stuffed with other plastic bags. Some relief could come from single-use plastic-bag bans, which are becoming more common.

New York City, where this Newscriptster lives, also banned polystyrene foam trays. Now takeout places often opt for ones made from thermoformed polypropylene. These use about the same amount of plastic as the polystyrene trays, but they are superior for storing leftovers or for feeding stray cats. Some other plastic reuse ideas: egg cartons—the fancy clear polyester ones, not the polystyrene foam ones—make good planters for seedlings. Stand-up pouches, like the kind used for granola, can be reused for sandwiches or snacks. The barrier properties and durability of these multilayer bags are excellent, and they are rarely recycled. And occasionally, plastics can be reused in higher-value ways than their original purpose. Big plastic coffee containers are fantastic for storing calcium chloride, which tends to turn to soup when left in its original plastic sack, where it absorbs moisture from humid air. The most satisfying reuse of a plastic knife, perhaps, is mixing two-part epoxy. How noble it is for “disposable” cutlery, once used to cut some chicken parmesan, to give its life to repairing the dowel on a wooden kitchen chair that will last for years.

Do you think you have found clever ways to reuse plastics? Let Newscripts know.

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