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Tina Casey headshot

Breaking the Stubborn Ocean Plastic Cycle

By Tina Casey
Ocean Plastic

The ocean plastic crisis shows no sign of going away, and it never will unless somebody, somewhere, can figure out a way to make harvesting plastic trash more financially attractive than digging virgin oil and gas up from underground. A new recycling process is emerging that promises to do just that, but care must be taken in order to prevent recycled plastic from entering the ocean all over again.

The clock is ticking on ocean plastic action

Last year, the organization Pew Charitable Trust produced a report on the ocean plastic crisis called Breaking the Plastic Wave. It laid out a gloomy view of the state of affairs. On a brighter note, the report also described a strategic timetable for achieving significant progress in the near future, based only on technologies and systems.

“The next two years will be pivotal for breaking the trend and implementing a first horizon of change that will allow key milestones to be met by 2025, including stopping the production of avoidable plastic, incentivizing consumers around reuse, improving labelling, and testing innovations such as new delivery models,” Pew wrote.

Looking farther out to a 2030-2040 time frame, Pew anticipated that “achieving the outcomes modeled under the System Change Scenario would require substantial changes in the business models of firms producing and using plastics and their substitutes,” in addition to similar changes in recycling and waste management, investment criteria, and consumer behavior.

Follow the money

All of these elements could fall into place if money were involved.

The energy transition provides a model of how that would work. Several leading oil and gas producers have begun to make significant investments in renewable energy even though it cuts into their oil and gas business, with Shell and BP being among the leading examples.

In addition, individual and institutional investors are beginning to flee the fossil energy field in favor of renewables, partly motivated by a surge in activity among activist shareholders and rising consumer demand for clean power. The demand-side pressure is coming from filtering up from individual rate payers to top corporate energy buyers as well as state and local energy policy makers.

The energy transition still needs to speed up substantially in order to avert global catastrophe — and it will, now that renewable energy is becoming competitive with fossil energy on cost.

An economical solution for ocean plastic pollution

A similar dynamic could be at work on the ocean plastic crisis. A new generation of more efficient recycling systems is beginning to emerge, partly with the help of research and development funding from L’Oreal and other leading corporate consumers of plastic.

That helps to improve the financial picture, but recycled plastic must still find a market, meaning that it must compete against virgin plastic on both cost and performance, too.

Vigorous subsidies and public policy can help tilt the playing field. Consumers who are willing to pay more for sustainable products can also help carve out space in the market. However, as Pew points out, the clock is ticking. Scale-up and acceleration are the key, and that will only happen when more investors realize there is more money to be made in plastic recovery and recycling.

A research team organized by the BOTTLE consortium is pursuing one solution to the money problem.

BOTTLE stands for Bio-Optimized Technologies to keep Thermoplastics out of Landfills. The consortium includes 10 national laboratories and academic research institutions operating under the umbrella of the U.S. Department of Energy. The focus is on “upcycling strategies for today's plastics and redesigning tomorrow's plastics to be recyclable-by-design.”

The new research was produced by a team from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and the U.K.’s University of Portsmouth. Although focused on textiles and carpeting rather than plastic bottles and straws, the research project does indicate that the plastic crisis is not a hopeless one.

The research team used enzymes to convert PET plastic into two components, terephthalic acid (TPA) and ethylene glycol. They modeled their system against the production of virgin plastic and found several key advantages.

A holistic solution to a global problem

One leading advantage is a sharp reduction in energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.

“Compared to conventional fossil-based production routes, the research team determined the enzymatic recycling process can reduce total supply-chain energy use by 69 percent - 83 percent and greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent – 43 percent per kilogram of TPA,” NREL explained.

The researchers also took environmental and socioeconomic effects into account. Noting that the economic benefits and social costs of virgin plastic are unequally distributed, they calculated that the new process would reduce environmental impacts by up to 95 percent, while creating new jobs that generate up to 45 percent more socioeconomic benefits.

Most importantly, the study indicates that the enzymatic process is cost-competitive with the production of virgin PET.

That’s one of the biggest opportunities,” explained NREL chemical engineer and lead researcher on the project Avantika Singh. If we can capture that space - textiles, carpet fibers, and other PET waste plastics that are not currently recycled - that could be a true game-changer.”

Keeping plastic out of the ocean, permanently

At first glance, textiles may not seem to be a significant part of the ocean plastic problem. However, the NOAA Marine Debris Program does list cloth among the leading types of debris in the ocean.

Illegal dumping and individual carelessness are parts of the textile debris problem. NOAA’s research indicates that accidents also play a large part.

Materials can be dumped, swept, or blown off vessels and stationary platforms at sea,” NOAA explains, adding that cargo ship accidents can be a leading source for all sorts of debris, from sneakers to TV sets and toys.

Textiles and other debris from land can also makes their way to sea, especially after floods, storms, and other catastrophic natural events.

In other words, the new BOTTLE research is a promising solution, but only if the end result is a suite of recycled plastic products that have little or no chance of becoming ocean plastic waste all over again.

The problem also includes microscopic plastic particles. Discarded bottles and other beach debris make for eye-catching photos, but a significant part of the ocean plastic problem is invisible to the naked eye.

If and when the recycled plastic market overwhelms fossil-based plastics, manufacturers and consumers must address the issue of ocean re-entry for both larger items and microplastic particles.

For example, one potential market is the use of recycled plastic to repave roads. That opens up a whole new area of potential ocean impacts related to tire wear and tear.

Another area is everyday laundry, which has been identified as a significant source of plastic microparticles in the ocean. Recycling other plastic items into clothing may solve one problem, only to contribute to another.

As new, more efficient plastic recycling technology emerges, policy makers and industry stakeholders will need to collaborate closely on solutions that truly undo the damage, and do it permanently.

Image credit: Naja Bertolt Jensen/Unsplash

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

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