Just have a look around. You see a lot of things and a lot of them is made of plastic. Plastic is everywhere. It’s just impossible to imagine our lives without it. It’s entirely fair to say that this modern world would have a completely different shape haven’t been for plastic.
Plastic is stable, durable, chemically inert, easily formable, lightweight, and, most importantly, inexpensive. However, it can persist in the ecosystem for hundreds or even thousands of years. Decades of mismanagement have resulted in discarded plastics.
Despite its numerous benefits, it is a significant threat to the ecosystem. Once it enters, it doesn’t perish for centuries. Experts say if the trend continues, we might have more 20 billion tons in the next 25 years.
So what to do?
CIRCULAR PLASTICS ECONOMY
Going by the word circular, this approach intends to use plastic over and over again so that it never becomes a waste for the ecosystem. Circular economy solutions for plastics include:
- Producing plastics from alternative non-fossil fuel feedstocks.
- Using plastic wastes as a resource.
- Redesigning plastic manufacturing processes and products to enhance longevity, reusability, and waste prevention.
But unfortunately, it comes with its challenges. The biggest one being a considerable fraction of plastics available in the market can’t be reused due to their formulation. This adds another level of complexity, making the goal immensely difficult to achieve. The story doesn’t stop here. There are hundreds of formulations available, each with different additives depending on the purpose for which the plastic is being made.
Additives complicate recycling. The additives must be identified, separated, and properly disposed of to recycle a post-use plastic back into a virgin resin. Now you can imagine the difficulty it possesses.
So what’s in it for the chemical industry? When you break the bonds of the polymer chains of which plastic is made, it produces a significant energy amount. This has been an unutilized source of energy.
Current methods in use pose not only a threat to the environment but also to humans. Most procedures have carcinogenics as by-products.
Most of the current methods include thermolysis, i.e., applying heat to depolymerize plastics. The closest we are to utilizing the energy of the bonds is by using PDFO. PDFO stands for Plastic-derived fuel oil. However, it still misses out on the opportunity to reuse leftover plastic waste.
SELECTIVE SOLVENT EXTRACTION
We are all familiar with the idea that specific solutes have an affinity for certain solvents. This idea is utilized in numerous separation techniques. The same concept can be extended only if we can design a solvent to target required polymers effectively. In the past years, engineers have been successful in doing so. This has proved to be a successful technique to recycle polymers from plastic packaging.
This is another method to break the polymers’ bonds using thermochemical processes. The process is somewhat complicated to explain and needs the help of a few figures. This process uses supercritical liquid, preferably water, to convert plastic into oil and gas.
The advantage it has over selective solvent extraction is its range of plastic types it can act over. Both processes can handle polyolefins, and Hydrothermal processing can even handle PVC and PET that have high higher amounts of non-polyolefins plastic.
NEED TO CHANGE AND ADAPT
Plastic has made our lives easy. We can store our food for a more extended amount of time, made packing easy, is transforming medical care, and has even made its way into building construction. There is no going back from this point, and so the need to manage plastic waste is more than ever. Especially in a country like India, the situation seems even worse. Poor trash infrastructure, lack of proper governmental actions, policies, and powerful institutions isn’t a good view of the future.
SO, WHAT TO DO??
1) First and foremost, we need to eliminate as much plastic waste as we can. Seeing the challenges to recycle mentioned above and no effective way, this is our only way at the moment that is bound to work.
2) We need breakthroughs. The chemical industry is still evolving. A lot of gaps are still clearly visible. New technological transformative methods are the need of the hour. The good news is the chemical industry has the potential, but it seems to be blinded by profits.
3) The producers play a crucial role in this scenario. They have to make products keeping in mind the reusability of their products. While developing or designing product reuse and recycle, principals must be given priority.
All of this is easier said than done. However, the best we can do is do best from our side and spread awareness simultaneously.