Despite the good efforts of many environmentally-minded consumers, a huge percentage of plastic still ends up in landfills. Even plastic containers placed in the recycling bin may end up rotting in a landfill for thousands of years, or worse, floating in the oceans. So, why does this happen?
Sadly, many types of plastics are difficult to recycle using current methods. Whether they jam the recycling machines or simply cannot be broken down efficiently, these “problem plastics” are a big deal. That’s why a team of two Australian scientists has created a new method to turn virtually any type of plastic into oil. If things go as planned, the technique could be the breakthrough necessary to help manage the single-use plastic crisis.
A Necessary Harm
Despite the environmental havoc that plastic causes, it does have some redeeming qualities. In cases such as food safety, healthcare, and building, it is invaluable. Without plastic, the world would look nothing like it does today.
The problem lies with single-use plastics. Things like water bottles, shopping bags, and straws are used once and thrown away forever. Furthermore, less tangible plastic items, like tangled fishing nets and the polyester material used to make carpet, are often discarded for convenience. It can be very difficult to recycle these items because of their shape, size, and material characteristics. Rather than allowing this trend to continue, however, what if there is a better way?
Thanks to Len Humphreys and Thomas Maschmeyer, it appears that a solution is on the horizon. The duo has been working for the past 12 years to perfect the Catalytic Hydrothermal Reactor (Cat-HTR). Their system uses an extreme chemical process to degrade plastic back into the oil that it was originally made from.
Maschmeyer says, “Basically, it’s a technology which breaks down plastics through heat and we do that in a way that is more controlled than other technologies.”
Cat-HTR can process multiple types of plastic at once, including PET, polystyrene, soft plastics, multilayer plastic packaging, polypropylene, and more. Once complete, the system yields about 85 percent oil that can be used to power the process again and again. That loop could be the key to a society that is “plastic neutral.”
Changing the Thought Process
If humanity wants to regain control of the global pollution problem currently running rampant, it will need to begin with a change in society’s way of thinking.
The creators of Cat-HTR say, “This [technology] will change the discussion from plastic as a problem to plastic as a valuable resource. It’ll change the way people approach collecting it, and it will lead to a dramatic reduction in environmental pollution.”
In the end, such a process would allow people to continue using plastic without feeling guilty or destroying the planet. A change like that might be all it takes to get everyone to jump onboard instead of just those willing to remove labels and clean out their containers before recycling them. Until then, the best way to help is to cut back on single-use plastics and recycle everything that you can. Doing something is still better than doing nothing.