Flexibility, resiliency, and durable, airtight protection — plastic is valuable across a wide range of industries, and it’s something we’ve gotten used to seeing in many areas of our everyday lives. Plastic is as commonplace as it is cheap to manufacture — but it does come with significant downsides, some of which we’re still learning about.
Most of those downsides become apparent after plastics have fulfilled their intended use and become a waste product. The same strong polymers that make plastic so useful also make it highly resistant to the natural process of biodegradation. It takes around ten minutes or less to manufacture a plastic bag; it takes hundreds of years for that plastic to degrade in the natural environment.
What can we do about it? One major thing is to generate packaging materials that are non-plastic. However, this is a long-term project, both in terms of innovation and widespread adoption. Some plastic things (straws, for instance) may be easy to swap out for paper versions. Other uses of plastic, such as in the medical setting, are less easily modified.
Even if we eliminated a large amount of plastic use in the coming years, there’s another problem: prior waste management. There are already millions of tons of plastic waste in various places around the globe, and it’s wreaking havoc on established ecosystems. Experts aren’t in agreement about what should be done, but innovators aren’t waiting to come up with exciting new solutions.
Here are two such solutions that may have an outsized impact on our current plastic waste crisis:
Despite the good intentions of recycling efforts, more than 85% of plastic gets dumped into landfills, where it’s left to either decompose or get actively burned — neither of which is a good solution.
Left alone, it can take hundreds or even thousands of years for these plastics to degrade, meaning that land will be more or less unusable. Burning plastic is even worse, as it releases harmful and dangerous pollution into the air.
What should we do, then? One answer is to figure out how to make the plastic degrade faster.
Bio-Tec Environmental is one example of a company that has risen to this challenge. Its product, EcoPure, is an additive in the plastic manufacturing process that allows for quicker biodegradation once that plastic makes it to a landfill. To make this possible, EcoPure relies on the help of microbes — tiny microorganisms that help break the plastic down.
Is it a perfect solution? No. But it’s an indication that there are things we can do differently when it comes to producing and disposing of plastic — without having to completely give up on its convenience.
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In the ocean
Ocean currents are fundamental to all ecosystems and all living things in one way or another. When it comes to plastic and other waste, those currents carry out a process much less beautiful — they channel water-borne waste into subtropical gyres. These gyres constitute a sort of ring of currents that ultimately form “ocean garbage patches.” Plastic and other litter can’t escape these patches, and the waste damages sea life. It also introduces toxic chemicals into entire food chains — including ones in which we humans participate.
Dutch engineering school dropout Boyan Slat took it upon himself to devise a way to clean up such garbage. He invented a simple but extremely effective set of systems to process it, starting by collecting it in a contained area. Once in that area, it can be removed efficiently and then processed. His aptly named non-profit The Ocean Cleanup estimates that it will be able to remove 50 percent of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch every five years.
Again, whether this technology lives up to the hype remains to be seen; but it’s a remarkable example of the kind of innovation in waste management we sorely need, and that should be emulated.
Progress, meet progress
Even if getting rid of plastic were feasible from an economic standpoint, that still wouldn’t make it desirable. It’s arguably one of the most versatile and capable products humans have ever invented.
Instead of focusing solely on switching to the use of non-plastics (not that there are very viable alternatives), we should continue innovating, keep pressing forward until we iterate a version of plastic consumption that works.
That may mean making better plastic, like EcoPure enables us to do. It may mean taking better care of the waste, like The Ocean Cleanup helps with. More than likely, we’ll need better versions of both, and additional widespread changes on top of that. Regardless, it’s obvious that innovation is the way forward. We just need to encourage more of it.