Stemming The Plastic Tide - 4 What to do with those Mountains of Plastic Waste
|[Some countries that took plastic recycling soon realized the problems as
huge amounts of waste began to pile up. What wasn’t recycled was
usually dumped or burned, leaving many areas of these countries flooded
with trash. The picture shows someone picking through a plastic waste
pile in Malaysia].|
(Source: Nandakumar S. Haridas, Greenpeace.)
The second Conference of the Global Treaty to Reduce Plastic Pollution by 80% by 2040 was held in Paris this week. Unfortunately, the conference was largely dominated by industry representatives, its parents i.e. members of the oil and Petro -chemical industries and their lobbyists, leaving little room for scientists, environmentalists and representatives of low -incomes countries which are most affected by the existing mountains of plastic. However, the report “Turning off the Tap” provides waypoints for achieving better outcomes in future. This involves a staggered phase -out of single use plastics and a shift to reuse, refilling and recycling and a switch to using more genuinely biodegradable or reusable material. Nor may waste be shipped to countries without capacity to manage it. You can read the highlights here or download the full report. Countries must take a united stand on this or they will be left with the worst kinds of plastic waste.
As far as ‘legacy’ plastic waste goes, that is, the around 4,900 million metric tonnes already in the environment, in landfills and in our oceans, there is only limited prescription. For low -income and middle -income countries which can’t afford expensive recycling systems or state of the art high temperature incinerators, the recommendations are that there should be no more open incineration, better waste management, stabilising and covering landfills, erecting river barriers, and preventing microplastics from leaching out. As a last resort, it recommends burning plastic in cement kilns which most countries have because they release 20% less Greenhouse Gases than open burning, but still 50 – 150% more than recycling. For the most part it recommends ‘palliative care’ until we think of something better.
Meanwhile scientists and others around the world are working to find solutions. Among the more novel experiments are fungi that eat polyurethane (see below), plastic eating worms, harnessing bacteria or enzymes or other ways to break plastic down or finding new uses for what is now a waste product. A few examples follow.
Fungi for polyurethane