The Plastic Ban Fallacy | Seattle weather

The Plastic Ban Fallacy |  Seattle weather

There is little disagreement that plastic waste is a significant global health and environmental problem, and that mechanical recycling has not been a complete solution. Product bans can sometimes be appropriate, especially when viable alternatives are universally available and impacts are not distributed equitably. However, it is unrealistic to suggest that we can ‘ban’ our way to a sustainable plastic-free society.

Plastics have enabled leaps in healthcare and sanitation, access to clean water, agility and safety for our military, space exploration, access to a myriad of recreational activities outdoors, ease and safety in construction, among a myriad of other uses.

Proposals for eliminating plastics should include consideration of alternatives and consideration of potential unintended consequences. For example, lightweight plastics are key to increasing energy efficiency and reducing greenhouse gas emissions in our transportation sector. Would we rather return to the manufacture of more energy-intensive materials? If so, what are the disposal, emissions, toxicity, scarcity, labor and other attributes associated with these other materials? Which communities would be most impacted?

One of the reasons why mechanical recycling has been insufficient is the lack of widely available and consistent collection and sorting infrastructure. About 30 million rural homes and 15 million suburban homes in the United States lack curbside recycling. This is not a problem with plastics; it’s an investment/infrastructure issue. Just as we can deliver mail to every household in the country, we could choose to invest in collecting recyclable materials from them.

Other challenges have included the limited types of plastics that can be mechanically recycled, and even then only a few times. Advanced recycling technology provides a solution not only to these two problems, but the one I offer is more important – the root causes of our waste problems, the linear model of consumption.

In the linear model, we extract natural resources, convert them into usable products, and once used, the majority end up in landfills, incinerators, or worse, in our oceans and bodies. In a closed system (such as planet Earth), linear consumption leads to resource depletion and the need for ever-increasing landfill land. In contrast, nature has long shown us that sustainable systems are circular. As with the water cycle, in a circular system, what is taken is replenished and what is left is reused. Nothing is wasted. This is the vision we should emulate.

Advanced plastic recycling is a step towards the transition to a circular economy. We take “end of life” plastic, and it’s “broken down” into its basic building blocks using heat (but not oxygen, so it doesn’t burn/incinerate, like this is widely misunderstood). These building blocks can then be used to create another useful item, and so on, over and over again.

Almost all plastics can be processed using advanced recycling, greatly expanding opportunities for waste reduction and decoupling their use from oil extraction. Additionally, these systems create markets for what was previously considered waste, with associated economic incentives for its recovery for molecular recreation and reuse.

Calls for universal plastic bans that divert attention and energy. Instead, let’s deploy a mix of imagination and pragmatism to implement policy and regulatory tools to unleash innovation. There is exciting work going on right now that pushes through the historical challenges. It is time to focus our energies on promoting the creation and deployment of viable and innovative solutions to eliminate waste while leveraging the benefits of plastics in a circular economy. The potential is vast and exciting.

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