Marketing Director Peter Oyloe explores some thoughts on our everyday use of plastics in a very consumer-centric society. What are the effects and what can be done to offset the damages that have been and will be done?

One of the last consumer grade materials that we have been able to recycle at any significant volume has been plastic. It has traditionally been very difficult for recycling systems to tell the over 20 consumer grade plastic formulas apart and therefore to recycle them. Though they may look and act alike, chemically they are not all compatible with each other. Currently, as a country, we are only recycling about 27 percent of the plastics that we use. The impact is huge:  “I will just throw this one plastic bottle away,” said seven billion people…

Recently I came across an interesting TED Talk by a man named Mike Biddle who has made it his life’s mission to take this abundant “waste” material develop an elegant, yet sophisticated, solution for sorting and, finally, reusing this valuable substance.

As our quest for oil becomes ever more destructive, politically challenging, and dangerous, the cost of goods made from petroleum (LOTS OF THEM) such as plastics has risen significantly in recent years. It can cost, depending on the grade of plastic, a dollar to several dollars per pound for the raw material. So why haven’t we been finding better ways to deal with these mountains of valuable trash that we have been shipping all around the world?

Mr. Biddle has found an exciting solution to some of the issues surrounding plastic wastes and has been able to turn huge quantities of these materials into food for new products; all the while aiding in the cleanup of cities we currently use as waste dumps around the globe. It is my hope that his work inspires others to find more elegant solutions to how we handle our waste. Even though we no longer want something it most certainly has value somewhere. We learned early on in our schooling that energy is neither created or destroyed, in this same manner the act of “throwing something away” only means it ends up somewhere else for someone else to deal with. It does not go away. The video below shows Mr. Biddle talking about the work he is doing as well as some very powerful images of where “waste” ends up.

A couple more tidbits for you to explore…

1. One of the largest man made structures in the world is and was the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island in NYC. It was opened in 1947 as a temporary solution for NYC’s waste but soon became the full time waste dump of America’s most populous city. It is now the site of a 30 year effort to convert this massive island of trash into a nature preserve called Freshkills Park.

2. Each year Americans create nearly 210 million tons of solid waste. Over two thirds of it is edible.

3. Waste Land is a documentary that follows the three year project of  Vik Muniz a very well known Brazilian artist as he helps several “catadores” or “pickers” create artworks out of the garbage of Jardim Gramacho, in Rio de Janeiro, the largest garbage dump in the world.  These “pickers” live and work in this man made landscape of waste gathering materials which they bring to recyclers with hopes of making a modest living. It is a powerful character study of these proud people and the effects they and Mr. Muniz have on each others lives.

4. Here is a news video of one of the “Trash Villages” in the Chinese city of Guiyang

The first synthetic plastic was patented by Alexander Parkes in the UK in 1856, but it was in the 1940s and 1950s when plastic really began to become mainstream and its life as a very everyday throwaway commodity began in earnest. With 7 billion people on this planet and a rapidly dwindling supply of oil from which to craft such materials we must find ways to conserve/recycle as well as develop renewable and biodegradable alternatives to our addiction to plastic.

There is a company that is working on such a product. Their name is Cereplast and they produce bio-plastics which they have divided into two classes. The first is what they call Cereplast Compostables which are plastics derived of plant starches such as corn, potatoes, tapioca, and algae. They are designed to degrade in tradition compost type conditions. Where as a traditional plastic may take up to 1000 years to degrade entirely in such conditions these bio-plastics might take 128 days. This of course is not ideal for durable goods such as sunglasses or baby seats so for these applications they have developed a material they call Cereplast Sustainables. These are plastics derived of bio-based resins that use 70 percent less petroleum than traditional plastics but still maintain the same level of durability.

Work is being done, and as you can see the hardest work before these sustainable plastic producers is how to get the same level of durability and mold-ability as traditional plastics while keeping costs down and producing at scale. However, as there are multiple usage scenarios for our current plastic needs, it is unlikely that there will be one end all be all solution. It is easy to see however that we can do our part to cut our usage and find ways to recycle as much of our “waste” as possible.

In nature “waste equals food”. It is only in our current resource usage scenarios that “waste equals trash”. As we develop elegant ways to balance our desire for consumer goods with healthy life cycle considerations we will find ourselves in much cleaner cities where we all do our part to feed the world that has for so long fed us, abundantly.

 

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