New Uses for Old Plastic

By: Rob Lamkin
In a world where plastic is ubiquitous, enterprising organizations are developing innovative, environmentally responsible applications for plastic. Some companies are producing products that re-imagine plastic waste as a useful resource.

Most people don’t think about the resources involved in plastic’s production, nor do they consider what happens when they discard plastic products. Yet as the importance of reducing landfill waste and promoting environmental consciousness increases, more companies are making innovative products out of this inexpensive and plentiful material, whether through recycling, downcycling, or upcycling. Such products include inflated solar concentrators; boats, including an ocean-worthy catamaran; clothing and textiles; and building materials such as high-performance lumber.Boats: David de Rothschild and the Adventure Ecology team approached Smarter Plan several years ago with the concept of building a 60-foot catamaran (the Plastiki) using 12,000 two-liter PET plastic coke bottles. Smarter Plan engineers developed a system to produce the entire boat’s skeleton framework from self-reinforced PET material. Since departing from San Francisco on March 20, 2010, the boat has performed admirably and its progress is being updated online with status on the voyage, photos and other missives from the crew.

Textiles and Fabrics: Several companies are recycling and downcycling plastic into fabric products ranging from pullovers to purses. For instance, Foss Manufacturing has changed the way it produces its polyester fiber and fabrics by making textiles from recycled materials. Its Eco-fi product is a high-quality polyester fiber made from 100% post-consumer recycled plastic bottles. It takes 10 bottles to make 1 pound of fiber. Eco-fi fiber is used in textile products such as blankets, carpets, auto interiors and craft felt, and is sold to major retailers, such as Wal-Mart and Jo Anne’s Fabrics.

  • Clothing is an important subset of the fabric market: in fact, your fleece hoodie might be made of recycled plastic. Since 1993, Patagonia has been making fleece from repurposed plastics such as soda bottles and shower curtains, and the range of recycled Patagonia clothes now include polyester shells and running shorts. Patagonia also downcycles its own recycled-material clothing. So send your Patagonia windbreaker back to the company, where it will be turned into polyester chips which are melted and spun into filament fiber for new garments.

  • Handbags represent another area where plastic is reinvented into consumer “textile” products. TerraCycle upcycles used packaging such as drink pouches, energy bar wrappers, yogurt cups, cookie wrappers, chip bags and more into affordable, high-quality products ranging from tote bags and purses to shower curtains and kites.

Building Materials: UK company i-plas takes mixed plastic waste and converts it into sustainable, high-performance, environmentally-friendly street furniture, plastic lumber, and other products, which are 100% recycled and 100% recyclable.

Solar Energy Concentrators: Cool Earth Solar’s concentrating photovoltaic technology represents a radical departure from “the usual” CPV systems [Full disclosure: I’m the CEO]. Rather than relying on expensive mirrors made of metal or glass, company engineers stretch thin sheets of metalized plastic to form powerful mirrors. The end result is a solar concentrator that is both lightweight and inexpensive. The material used is the same as that found in plastic chip bags; plastic from the concentrators can be downcycled and repurposed into products such as building insulation.

When it comes to protecting and bettering the environment, plastic is often viewed as the “big villian.” However, as companies such as Patagonia and Cool Earth Solar show, it’s really a matter of perspective, or, if you prefer, a matter of use and re-use, invention and re-invention, recycling, upcycling and downcycling. By rethinking how we design our products and use common materials like plastic, items that would otherwise be landfill waste can be transformed into a valuable resource.

Rob Lamkin, CEO at Cool Earth Solar, has more than 20 years of experience in the energy industry. Before joining Cool Earth, Lamkin founded and led Radiant Energy, which develops renewable and clean power generation assets with a focus on solar and geothermal projects. As CEO of Cool Earth Solar, Rob is focused on quickly and economically scaling the company’s technology to address the global energy crisis.

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