Taming Plastics: Stop the Pollution

“Taming Plastics: Stop the Pollution,” by Albert Bates, Ground Swell Books, Summertown, TN, 2020. This 41-page paperback presents an introduction to the problem of plastics pollution and recycling. The volume is colorful with numerous photos–many including young people–suggesting pre-teens as the target audience.

Bates begins with the history of plastics. The word plastic refers to materials that can be molded. The first was nitrocellulose, which was presented at the Great London Exposition in 1862. Plastics made from casein milk protein first appeared in 1897. Celluloid, a nitrocellulose plastic blended with camphor, was used to make billiard balls replacing ivory. Bakelite, a phenolic plastic was invented in 1907. It was a thermoset plastic used for electrical fixtures and radio cabinets. Most plastics were discovered in the 1930s and became popular after World War II.

The book is non-technical but does explain the difference between thermoplastics and thermosets. Bates describes the most common plastics and their uses: PVC, polystyrene, polypropylene, nylon, polycarbonate, and polyurethane. He mentions silicones, epoxies, and teflon. He omits polyethylene and PET (polyethylene glycol terephthalate), the most common polyester. Nor does he describe the seven recycling categories molded on the bottom of most plastic containers in the US. A page describes the hazards of teflon coated non-stick cookware, which can emit toxic fumes when over heated.

Key problems are discarded plastics in the ocean and the inability to “repurpose” much of the plastic collected in recycling programs. For years much recycled plastic was bundled and shipped to China. In 2017, China decided the plastic received was too contaminated. Other Asian countries soon stopped accepting recycled plastics.

Bates emphasizes the difficulty of single use plastics. Much that can’t be recycled is incinerated or buried in landfills. Most plastics are stable and don’t biodegrade. They may last for decades or centuries in landfills. Plastics made from plant sources like corn have potential to increase the cost of foods and energy and fertilizer requirements. Biodegradable plastics have been developed. They are designed to degrade quickly once discarded rather than accumulating in the environment. But they require special processing posing problems in sorting. The author recommends use of plastics that are easy to recycle.

A chapter suggests goals to address the plastics problem. Create new plastic from old ones. Improve the shapes of plastics. Find sustainable ways to breakdown plastics. Create biodegradable plastics.

Shape shifting describes converting used plastics into useful materials. Some plastics can be converted into crude oil or used to resurface roads replacing asphalt. Recovering polyester from textile blends is described. Nylon fishnets recovered from the ocean can be melted and converted to high quality yarn.

Microbes that can degrade plastics as in a landfill may be possible. Some research is promising, but releasing that microbe in the environment risks uncontrolled damage to other structures.

Consumers can help by making better choices. Stop using disposable plastic straws. Use reusable straws. Or paper straws. Ban disposable plastic bags. Use paper or reusable bags.

Some companies use plastics derived from natural products rather than fossil fuels. Lego uses polyethylene made from sugar (probably by fermentation to ethanol and cracking to ethylene).

Plastic Bank is a plastics collection program. Participants turn plastics in where they are weighed and credited to the customer account. The plastic is sorted, cleaned, and recycled. Henkel in Germany has a shampoo bottle made 100% from recycled plastics. Marks & Spencer in UK makes shopping bags from recycled plastic. Plastic paving blocks are being tested in Netherlands. Plastic railroad ties and deck planks are not described.

The problem of plastics floating in the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and California is well known. The book describes plans to collect this plastic, sort it and recycle it.

A final section describes living plastic free. Typical ideas include avoiding plastics where ever you can. Buy eggs in cardboard boxes rather than polystyrene. Avoid toilet paper packaged in plastic. Avoid synthetic fibers in clothing. (Choose cotton, wool, silk, linen, leather?)

This book is a reasonable introduction to plastics recycling. Economics is overlooked. New plastics are inexpensive and of very high quality. Post consumer waste recycling has multiple problems. Collection and sorting is labor intensive. Used plastic can be contaminated by almost anything including other plastics, paint, chemicals, pesticides, motor oil, etc. Its value is reduced on multiple levels. It cannot be used for food packaging. Contamination means loss of properties compared to new. Pigments and dyes make recycling more difficult. It usually must be dyed a dark color like black. Processing to crude oil or fuel is low value. Conversion to higher value products offers potential for viable business opportunities. Cost is the fundamental problem with recycling. To be sustainable recycling must be profitable.

Companies should be encouraged to use more recycled plastics. Doing so increases the value of recycled plastic which helps pay for processing.

Generally the book is overly simplistic. There are obvious gaps in coverage. Readers will want to know more. Lack of references is a significant limitation. Extensive photos. Index.