Tech’s Problem With Plastics – Plus Solutions Tech Can Offer

An amazing amount of of plastic pollution and electronic waste is poisoning the environment. From places as disparate as remote islands and our own bodies, plastic can be found. Plastics, which are made from fossil fuels, are directly linked to the climate crisis. Big Oil’s fossil capitalism approach is to shift responsibility for plastics from companies to their customers, placing the responsibility for the environmental degradation on consumers. Meanwhile, Big Oil grows its plastics production to offset upcoming scenarios where fossil fuels become stranded assets. Tech’s problem with plastics is aligned with other industries, but tech can also be part of the solution.

Think of plastic pollution like an overflowing tub in your bathroom, Josh Lepawsky, a professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland who maps the international movement of electronic waste, told The Verge.

“If you walked into that, probably the first thing you would do would be to turn off the tap — not grab a bucket and a mop, if you think of the bucket and the mop as recycling,” Lepawsky says. Turning off the tap equates to squelching the production of plastic goods. Trying to clean up a growing mess won’t address the root of the problem. “It doesn’t mean, don’t use a bucket and a mop. That’s not turning off the tap.”

Possible Solutions for the Poison of Plastics

Plastic waste management technologies across the world have been traditionally divided into 4 general categories: mechanical recycling, feedstock recycling, energy recovery, and landfilling.

What can be done to make the plastics already produced more valuable?

Tech companies are making environmental claims about incorporating recycled materials. Is recycled plastic really an environmentally friendly investment?

  • Microsoft is proud of its Ocean Plastic Mouse, created from recycled elements. However, its partner in the endeavor is Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (SABIC), a subsidiary of oil company Saudi Aramco. The mouse shell is made with 20% recycled plastic, and any environmental gains could potentially be wiped out if the company sells 20% more mice, a pitfall ecological economists describe as the “rebound effect” or “Jevon’s paradox.”
  • Logitech pushes items with post-consumer recycled plastic.
  • Samsung boasts of watch bands with recyclable and eco-friendly materials like apple peels.

Industries outside of tech, too, are trying to reduce plastics in manufacturing: food packaging, fashion, and toys. We hear about trends in which plastic bottles are converted into thin fibers used in carpeting and fleece.

Plastic quality deteriorates with each use, so the goal of producing new plastic out of old — downcycling — is very difficult. It might not have the strength or durability for a 1-to-1 conversion, so fresh plastics need make up the difference for new plastic products. More often than not, the degraded plastic ends up at a recycling center or landfill or is incinerated.

The GAO highlights the possibility of chemical recycling as an alternative or complementary technology to current mechanical recycling processes of sorting and shredding. Chemical recycling technologies use heat, chemical reactions, or both, to recycle used plastic into new plastic, fuel, or other chemicals—creating a closed loop where plastics can be infinitely recycled to help reduce reliance on landfills. The GAO acknowledges that chemical recycling technologies faces hurdles, like high startup costs and few incentives for investing in innovation.

Dow Chemical offers a strategic mitigation strategy where it is testing plastic road construction. The idea is to pave roadways with polymer-modified asphalt (PMA) using postconsumer recycled plastic. Waste plastic like plastic bags, disposable cups, and PET bottles, for example, are collected from garbage dumps as an important ingredient of the construction material. The plastics are then finely ground before being mixed into Dow’s Elvaloy Ret asphalt modification technology. The problem with this approach — and I’m no scientist — is that Dow’s asphalt modification technology is filled with chemicals, many of which are created from fossil fuels. How distant, really, is this plastic paved road from petrochemical-based plastics?

What can be done is to manufacture an item that doesn’t require high-quality plastic or chemically-altered recycled plastics? An expanded view of the plastics problem reframes it around plastics and the full-life sustainability rather than on waste alone.

Bioplastics, such as PLA, PHA, PHB, PHV, PHH, and starch polymers are more frequently called upon as plastic alternatives.

A sustainable plastic waste management for developing countries can have as its goal to convert plastic waste into resources. Experts argue that a circular economy with legislative approach and standards on plastic waste management can help in reducing environmental externalities. It can also yield a secondary resource as energy and materials through urban mining, in which waste plastics are converted into potential anthropogenic resources. Both help to achieve the target of sustainable development goals.

Duke University has established a Plastic Pollution Prevention and Collection Technology Inventory Search. The Inventory was created to aid local governments, nongovernmental organizations, and other stakeholders in identifying technologies that may help to remediate hotspots of marine plastic pollution. It contains 52 technologies that were developed as of July 20, 2020 to either 1) prevent plastic pollution from entering the environment or 2) collect existing marine plastic pollution. Technologies in the inventory can be searched based on the remediation strategy (i.e., prevention or collection), plastic type (i.e., macroplastics, microplastics or both macroplastics and microplastics), or inventory category (e.g., laundry balls; boats and wheels).

Advocacy to Get Tech Companies to Stop with the Plastics

Consumers are calling out Big Tech for the harm they do to the environment. Their product manufacturing contributes to air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, waste, and water use. Employees at Microsoft, Amazon, Google, and other tech giants have published letters pushing their companies to stop polluting and to stop working with fossil fuel companies altogether.

Have you ever tried to contact Amazon to request that your order is shipped in paper or cardboard rather than plastic shipping envelopes? It’s a customer service whirlpool nightmare of supposed help messages that lead to frustration without results. Aaarrgghh! You’re not alone.

Since 2019, the Alliance to End Plastic Waste has rallied over 90 member companies, project partners, allies and supporters who are committed to ending plastic waste in the environment.

5 Gyres has completed 19 expeditions since 2009, bringing more than 300 citizen scientists, corporate executives, brands, and celebrities to the gyres, lakes, and rivers to conduct firsthand research on plastic pollution.

Plastic Pollution Coalition is a growing global alliance of more than 1,200 organizations, businesses, and thought leaders in 75 countries working toward a more just, equitable world free of plastic pollution and its toxic impact on humans, animals, waterways, the ocean, and the environment.

2050: I Quit Plastic increases awareness of individual plastic pollution by asking participants to sign a pledge to swear off plastic water bottles, utensils, plastic bags, and straws.

“We can’t recycle our way out of this problem—acute reduction of plastic products, recycled or not, is the solution,” Max Liboiron, an associate professor of geography at Memorial University who researches plastic pollution, told The Verge. “​​Even the production of new plastic items that use some of these ocean plastics as feedstock will result in a net increase in plastic pollution.”

Perhaps joining in on the advocacy from a group like one of these or others can make an impact. Spread the word: it’s time to place a moratorium on plastics production!


 


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