“The concept that we could use it, throw it away, and it doesn’t matter where you throw it, and it’s going to safely disappear, that does not exist.”
~ Ramani Narayan, Professor, School of Packaging, Michigan State
“The vast majority of plastic waste produced around the world is not recycled, but rather incinerated, landfilled or discarded in nature. With a rapidly growing supply of plastic waste, reuse options that turn waste into resources is desperately needed in order to effectively manage the waste stream.”
~ World Wildlife Federation
Our recycle container was nearly full, with just enough room for the empty butter tub and Sunday newspaper before I took it out to the bin in the alley. My town includes recycling in our trash collection contract, so I always separate out potentially recyclable materials from the trash, and I also maintain a compost pile for vegetable food waste that I turn into the garden beds each spring.
But the butter tub reminded me that when I was growing up, our Dad saved all those plastic tubs and lids in a closet off the back porch. Whenever we came back from hunting, he’d take the cleaned dove, duck or quail, put them into a tub and cover it with salt water before putting it in the freezer. There was always a ready supply of out-of-season game to get us through those times. When our folks died, we had the opportunity to not only eat all the left-over game, but empty that closet of decades of plastic containers and lids. With no recycling service available to us, they all went into the dumpster.
However, I hear various reports that most recycled plastic today is actually just incinerated or landfilled and not recycled. Writer Jim Robbins notes, “From the shores of the Arctic Ocean, to the beaches of the Mediterranean, to the rivers of India, plastic is accumulating in staggering quantities, especially in marine environments.”
“Though companies like Coca-Cola and Pepsi are under public pressure to solve the problem of plastic pollution, they have so far been unable to find a material or method as cheap and effective as single-use plastic … Bioplastics have been touted as an important solution to the world’s plastic pollution problem. But despite a growing push in recent years to come up with an organic plastic that satisfies product needs and, after use, becomes part of nature again, making bioplastics that are both cheap and effective, has posed a major challenge.”
Recently I saw a spate of reports about the use of recycled plastics in road building. Interesting …
I learned a bit about road building in college, and got an understanding of what goes into it. Asphalt is derived from petroleum in refineries or in some cases from naturally-occurring tar sands. Of course, sand and gravel (aggregate) is mined, as are the materials that make up cement. Each of these operations can affect the environment (as does most anything we do), so recycling plastic to replace some of these materials and operations can be beneficial.
And, it turns out that recycling plastic for roads is feasible. An article by Civil Jungle describes the concepts, “Plastic Roads are generally of two kinds. The first type of plastic road is made up of modular, hollow and prefabricated road elements made from waste consumer plastics. The other type of plastic road is made by Asphalt mix with waste plastic products incorporated into the asphalt mix.”
An article in Venture Magazine notes, “Roads made from recycled plastic and other materials are durable, flexible, and lightweight, and soon we may all be driving on them … Aside from repurposing waste and keeping it out of landfill and the ocean, there are other benefits. Being mixed with plastic lowers the temperature of poured asphalt, reducing emissions. The resulting roads can withstand more extreme temperatures without cracking, reducing the number of potholes. The more flexible roads should also last longer than traditional asphalt roads.”
One commercial application described by World Wildlife Federation claims, “Every component of the PlasticRoad is being designed to make its application completely circular, with the goal of using recycled plastic as much as possible. Imagine that constructing a road would take days instead of months. That roads would last three times as long. That maintenance and traffic disruption are things of the past. And that cable and piping problems as well as the urban water problem are solved overnight.”
I wish these options had been available when we cleaned out my Dad’s closet full of plastic tubs.
CivilJungle, What Are Plastic Roads?
Jim Robbins, Why Bioplastics Will Not Solve the World’s Plastics Problem, August 31, 2020, YaleEnvironment 360
Venture Magazine, Streets Ahead, Quarter 2, 2021
World Wildlife Federation, Plastic Smart Cities
Sounds like an interesting pursuit, that’s for sure. Sadly, I think we’re going to have to revert a lot of our habits to 150 years ago in the disposability realm of things before we can turn any kind of tide. A radically different lifestyle will have to be adopted but I don’t think many people are willing to do that.