Frost & Sullivan Shares Insights on the Occasion of World Environment Day (June 5th)
The ubiquitous influence of plastics in mankind’s modern lifestyle has led to the production of about 300 million tonnes of fossil fuel-based plastics annually, according to the UN. About half of the total plastics produced to date are thrown away after a single use, and about 60% of the waste ends up in landfills or accumulates in the environment. This makes plastics a major contributor to land and marine pollution and loss of biodiversity. The devastating environmental impacts of improper plastic waste management and the depletion of fossil fuel resources are the major driving forces of the formation of stringent regulatory guidelines for the manufacturing, use, and disposal of plastics globally.
Five Ways to Mitigate Plastic Pollution
Maximizing the potential of plastic waste: The waste management hierarchy of “Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle” aims to extract maximum benefits from the generated waste plastics feedstock and enables end-users to manage the remaining minimum amount of waste.
Technology to the Rescue: Emerging technological advancements have the potential to improve plastics waste management, paving way for a safer and cleaner environment. India’s Department of Science & Technology has been actively supporting the development of novel technologies such as recycling polystyrene waste with citrus peel extract and plastics waste-to-weave green technologies to develop fibers that can be used in the textile industry.
Creating a Circular Economy: Efficiency of plastic recycling can be increased by integrating mechanical recycling technologies with co-gasification or pyrolysis. This creates a circular economy by closing the loop of the plastics value chain. This improves the ability to effectively utilize mixed plastic waste streams and transform the mixed waste into useful raw materials. France-based Carbios has developed a novel thermo-mechanical based infinite recycling process that converts waste PET plastics into monomers to be used as raw material for manufacturing plastics for the packaging industry.
Formation of Strict Guidelines: Efforts are being made by policymakers across the globe, including banning single-use plastics and incentivizing recycling processes, to enhance the strategies employed in the waste management hierarchy. In 2019, the European Parliament approved the law banning single-use plastic items such as straws, cotton buds, and cutlery, by 2021.
Adopting Sustainable Alternatives: While adoption of guidelines will help, it is up to individuals and organizations to make changes in their lifestyle and adopt sustainable alternatives to help mitigate plastic pollution. Chemical-giant BASF develops novel bio-polymers based on hemp, kenaf, and bast fibers as a sustainable alternative for fossil fuel-based plastics used in packaging, furniture, and automotive industries.
Improving plastics recycling infrastructure has many societal advantages including reducing the burden on the environment and decreasing the dependence on finite fossil fuel resources. Plastic recycling and degradation technologies are also vital to realizing the potential of plastics waste as useful raw material while mitigating pollution. Plastic recycling reduces dependency on virgin raw materials made from fossil fuels and also substantially reduces the carbon footprint associated with plastic waste management. It provides the necessary tools to assign equal or greater value to the end-of-life plastics waste.
Technological advancements in plastic recycling and degradation are necessary to overcome the current challenges associated with plastic waste management and to further reduce the negative impacts of plastics on the environment.
Technologies Accelerating Plastic Recycling
The two major classifications of plastics recycling are mechanical and chemical recycling technologies. Mechanical recycling technologies involve washing, shredding, and melting waste plastics, followed by pelletization and selective compression of all polymers to create monomers. Chemical recycling includes the use of catalytic degradation of High-density Polyethylene (HDPE), Low-density Polyethylene (LDPE), Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET), and polypropylene-based plastics wastes to create monomers. These monomers can be used as raw materials in many applications, including in petrochemical industries and oil refineries.
Pyrolysis and co-gasification technologies enable thermo-oxidative de-polymerization that can be used for the effective conversion of mixed plastics waste feedstock (polyethylene, PET, polystyrene, polyamides, and others) into fuels and syngas. The derived fuels have properties similar to crude oil and can be further refined to be used in the transportation industry. The clean syngas sans dioxins and furans can also be used for the manufacture of hydrogen, mixed alcohols, and fertilizers.
Technologies Accelerating Plastic Degradation
Conventional plastics can take more than 400 years to degrade. It is, therefore, necessary to re-engineer the lifecycle of plastics using advanced biological processes that can ensure that the plastics degrade at a faster rate to avoid waste accumulation in the natural environment.
Enzyme-engineered biological processes enable rapid degradation of waste plastics into smaller pieces of micro and nano-plastics that can be easily assimilated by the micro-organisms present in nature. The degradation rate can be enhanced by 20-30 times as the addition of engineered enzymes to plastics aids in accelerating the degradation with 90% conversion efficiency within the first four weeks under a conducive environment, according to Carbios.
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