A World with New Plastic

THE PROBLEM

Plastic pollution continues to be a growing environmental issue. Around 79% of plastic is gathered in either landfills or natural environments. Due to its inability to biodegrade, plastic has the power to damage natural resources and wildlife over and over again. Many people aim to recycle, but many plastic products can’t be repurposed due to combined additives. There have been many attempts at creating sustainable alternatives. Researcher at our very own Georgia Institute of Technology are researching ways to utilize crab shells and tree fibers, but few attempts provide actionable solutions that could be integrated into society. What if there was a new way to make plastic eco-friendly?

WHAT IS PLASTIC?

Plastic was never made to be recycled! The majority of plastic products are produced using crude oil which consists of polymers (chains of hydrogen and carbon). Once separated into lighter components called “fractions”, it is then separated again into “naphthas”. There are also two main types of plastic: Thermoplastic and Thermosets.  Thermoplastic can be softened when exposed to heat and hardened when cooled. Thermosets are polymers that cannot be changed once molded. Because there are so many different types of plastic with various materials, and specific properties, you can imagine the difficulties that come when trying to contain them in a sustainable way.

NEW PLASTIC CHANGES EVERYTHING!!

New Plastic is a new polymer material developed by Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory that has the ability to be recycled continuously! While many thermoplastics can be melted down, the array of additives used in them prevent them from being reused. This is why the majority of plastic is “downcycle”, which means it can’t be used for important utility items.

However, a new material called polydiketoenamine, or PDK has been developed. With the aid of a highly acidic solution, additives can be separated from their polymer. This leaves behind high-quality monomers that can be “up-cycled”, and be reused for products of importance.

COULD WE MAKE A NEW PLASTIC WORLD? MAYBE NOT

New PDK products and applications are being explored by researchers, but could this process even be adopted. Reusing plastic has been deemed not profitable enough for companies, and conventional plastic is one of the cheapest materials to produce. With the other 18 billion pounds of plastic waste still in circulation, trying to sort the PDK plastic from different types of plastic poses even greater systematic problems. There are also many cultural and societal barriers that prevent sustainable change. The typical person doesn’t know which plastic is recyclable or may not even care.  It’s for time to tell if new sustainable practices like New Plastic stand a chance in our modern landscape.

SOURCES:

Soderstrom, A. (2018, August 7). Georgia Tech creates sustainable plastic from crab shells, tree fibers. Retrieved from https://www.ajc.com/business/georgia-tech-creates-sustainable-plastic-from-crab-shells-tree-fibers/pWetPwmYUp0BS33wwtk6RI/.

Daley, J. (2019, May 8). This New Plastic Can Be Endlessly Recycled. Retrieved from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/new-plastic-can-be-recycled-endlessly-180972130/.

Statistics of the Year 2018: Winners announced. (0AD). Retrieved from https://www.statslife.org.uk/news/4026-statistics-of-the-year-2018-winners-announced.