Plastic is one of our greatest inventions and worst enemies. National Geographic’s research shows that plastic production has increased dramatically since 2000, and many plastic products, such as water bottles, are discarded after a single use. Half of the world’s total plastic is manufactured in Asia; 29% of it happens in China. Global production grows at the rate of 8% per year. US residents use one plastic bag per day compared to those in Denmark who use four in a year. We also have microplastics on cosmetics and clothing which are released during washing and carried all the way to the sea, poisoning the marine life.
Plastic consists of organic polymers which are made up of monomers. Carbon is the main component; it combines with oxygen, nitrogen, or sulfur to make a monomer. Each polymer has a side chain attached to it which defines the final characteristics–one of them is the difficulty in degradation. Many industries support the recycling of polyethylene, being the easiest one to destroy among all. On the other hand, other types like polystyrene rarely get the same treatment because it takes more resources and time to disrupt the structure. Ironically, these are the building blocks of most food packaging and disposable cutlery. Also, these plastics consumed by the public can hardly be recycled because the organization of the waste is not as clear as the industrial wastes.
To make matters worse, reducing the amount of plastic is hard. Incineration isn’t entirely safe due to the side products (such as gas emissions and liquid waste). In addition, less than 20% of all the plastic waste is recycled around the world. The fact that plastic is created to be stable and durable surely has a role. That’s how we start wondering if it is possible to recreate plastic into an environmental-friendly form. Finding the answer sends us back to the basic chemistry of plastic.
The analysis above summarizes our homework in improving plastic recycling. We need to find a new type of plastic which can be taken apart easily. We also need to make sure that the facilities for recycling are ready to process the products. Scientists at Washington State University are developing a series of catalytic processes to break down the resins and materials while keeping the carbons and fibers undamaged for reuse. University of Houston’s Dr. Robertson is looking for renewable chemicals to replace some elements in the resins, possibly using soybean oil and other plant derivatives. Some are even looking into self-destructive polymers which may bring plastic recycling to a whole new level once if it is possible to implement.
We should always remember that chemistry cannot stand on its own despite such the huge role it plays in this subject. We should work with the companies in the plastic industry to distribute the new type of plastic. The government has to organize the right waste policies, and ensure that those waste products can reach the recycling spots to complete the cycle. Incentives may also be necessary to spread the idea further. It may take a while to get there, but I have no doubt that chemistry is the first step of the solution.