As Bellingham considers following in the footsteps of the City of Edmonds, WA, to become the second municipality in the state to ban the retail use of plastic bags, it’s interesting timing to come across an article in one of my favorite publications, Ode Magazine, that challenges the knee jerk environmentalist abhorrence of plastic.
It’s a great read that does a really good job of balancing caution and Celebrating Progress.
[Mike Biddle, president and co-founder of MBA Polymers] is one of a growing number of entrepreneurs that reject the current environmental orthodoxy that “plastic is evil” and should be phased out. Eliminating plastic altogether, they argue, isn’t only unrealistic but undesirable. Without plastic, there would be no laptops, cell phones, refrigerators, toothbrushes, traffic lights or countless other products on which we depend. Plastic is, in fact, one of the most valuable materials around. It’s durable, lightweight, adaptable to a dizzying array of applications, and—with the right mix of responsible re-use and non-petroleum-based alternatives—ecologically friendly.
“We should be celebrating plastic,” says Anthony Zolezzi, co-founder of Greenopolis and the GreenOps Recycling System, an interactive approach to giving “trash” a second life. “It’s how we abuse it and don’t re-use it that’s a problem. [Plastic is] an amazing ingredient that we should look at as a precious material, no different than we look at gold.”
Biddle’s company has developed a technology that can more efficiently separate various types of salvaged used plastic — from discarded products that normally go to a landfill — and processes it into a reusable raw plastic material.
Proponents like Biddle and Zolezzi aren’t blind to the dangers plastic poses. Additives leach into the environment, disrupting the hormonal balances of marine life. Plastic bags flap in the wind like prayer flags at the edges of many towns in the Sahara. Research by Charles Moore, founder of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, suggests that, at its densest, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch contains about 3 million pieces of plastic per square mile, a million per square kilometer…
E-waste (from computers, phones and other information technologies) and automotive shredder residue (of the kind that MBA Polymers recycles) are some of the biggest and least visible parts of today’s plastic recycling challenge. But what about the stuff we’re asked to dispose of on a daily basis: the plastic wrapping on a new dress, the bubble wrap in a UPS box, plastic wine corks or those little bits of hard-shell plastic you can’t even identify?
Peter Lewis, founder of Byfusion in Dunedin, New Zealand, found himself motivated by this very challenge. “Only about 20 percent of plastic in the whole waste stream is identifiable,” Lewis says. “That other 80 percent is the real problem. More often than not, it quietly slides into the landfill or slides somewhere else we don’t hear about.”
Lewis developed a machine designed to deal with that other 80 percent. The machine accepts any type of plastic, no matter its type or grade, shreds it, sterilizes it and spits it out in the form of a plastic block with an interlocking design, like a Lego brick. The blocks can be assembled into garden walls, erosion barriers on the banks of rivers or noise and safety barriers along the collars of highways. In preliminary studies, the plastic blocks have proven excellent at absorbing the impact from automobiles, making them ideal fender material. “We can make products out of any type of plastic,” Lewis boasts.
Not all plastic is difficult to identify…Unfortunately, ease of identification often doesn’t translate to recycling success. Current estimates suggest only half of U.S. households have access to curbside recycling, and only half of those with access use it.
To boost these numbers, companies have come up with rewards-based communities.
RecycleBank, based out of New York City, partners with municipalities in the U.S. and the U.K. to increase landfill diversion and bolster revenue from recycled plastic and aluminum. Participating households are rewarded with coupons redeemable at participating local businesses. Statistics show that the recovery of recyclables often doubles with the RecycleBank system in place.
But no matter how thorough our efforts, recycling alone won’t change the fact that the techniques by which we source and recycle plastics remain problematic. Nearly all virgin plastic is made from petroleum or natural gas, both of which are non-renewable resources.
Plastic therefore needs to be re-invented as well as recycled.
NatureWorks, founded in 2003, has created a “bioplastic” sourced entirely from plant sugar. The plastic, named Ingeo, can be safely composted in 60 days, so food waste from restaurants and fast food chains (which is typically contaminated with non-compostable cups, forks and spoons) can go to composters rather than landfills. Better yet, if separated properly, Ingeo can be melted down to its virgin form and reprocessed with close to 100 percent efficiency.