Tag Archives: plastic waste

Startup turns non-recyclable plastic into building blocks

Credit: ByFusion.

Although Americans do their part and dutifully put items into their recycling bins, much of it doesn’t actually end up recycled. According to the EPA, of the 267.8 million tons of municipal solid waste generated by Americans in 2017, only 94.2 million tons were recycled or composted. Just 8% of plastics were recycled, the same report stated.

There are many reasons for this sad state of affairs. Up until recently, the U.S. exported 16 million tons of plastic, paper, metal waste to China, essentially outsourcing much of its waste processing, passing the responsibility to other countries. Some of this waste was incinerated by China to fuel its booming manufacturing sector, releasing toxic emissions in the process, while the rest end up in the countryside and ocean, contaminating the water, ruining crops, and affecting human health. But since 2018, China has banned the import of most plastics and other materials that were not up to very stringent purity standards. Without China’s market for plastic waste, the U.S. recycling industry has been caught with its pants down, woefully lacking in infrastructure.

Furthermore, recycling plastic is a major challenge even if the U.S. had a good recycling infrastructure and coherent federal strategy — recycling decision-making is currently in the hands of 20,000 communities, all of which make their own choices about whether they recycle and what gets recycled — due to contamination. Items placed in the wrong bin or food contamination can prevent large batches of material from being recycled and, as a result, a large portion of the waste placed into recycling bins has to be incinerated or discarded into landfills.

ByFusion, a startup from Los Angeles, wants to turn this problem into an opportunity. The company builds huge machines called Blockers that squeeze mounds of plastic into standard building blocks called ByBlocks. Each ByBlock is 16x8x8 inches and comes in three variations: flat, molded with pegs so they can be interlocked, or a combination of the two. According to Fast Company, ByBlocks are about 10 pounds (4.5 kg) lighter than hollow cement blocks.

Credit: ByFusion.

The world loves to use plastic because it’s cheap and highly durable. The same appealing properties are a curse when plastic reaches the end of its lifecycle. But guess where else durability and low cost are prized? That’s right, the construction industry.

Virtually any kind of plastic, with the exception of Styrofoam, can be compressed into a ByBlock. “You [can] literally eat your lunch, throw in [the leftover plastic], make a block, then stick it in the wall,” Heidi Kujawa, who founded ByFusion in 2017, told Fast Company.

The only major drawback of ByBlocks is that they’re very susceptible to degradation due to sunlight, but this can be easily circumvented by coating their surface with paint or using another weather-resistant material. This was demonstrated in the city of Boise, Idaho, where residential plastic waste (grocery bags, bubble wrap, fast-food containers, etc.) was turned into building blocks used to erect a small building in a local park.

A small building made with ByBlocks. Credit: ByFusion.
The same building after it was treated with paint and decorations. Credit: ByFusion.

Since it began operation, ByFusion has recycled over 100 tons of plastic, with the lofty goal of scaling to 100 million tons by 2030. At the moment, there’s only one full production unit in L.A., which can process 450 tons of plastic a year, but the startup has partnered with Tucson and Boise, and plans to expand in the rest of the country. The aim is to have a Blocker machine in every city in the US, where they can be integrated with existing municipal waste processing facilities or even run by corporations that want to process their waste on-site.

That’s a commendable mission but with a price tag of $1.3 million for the largest Blocker machine, many willing stakeholders may simply not be able to afford this solution. On the other hand, plastic waste has its own, often hidden, costs, so doing nothing about it may actually prove more expensive as our plastic problem compounds over time. 

Could we use plastic to end the ocean’s plastic problem? A new paper says: “Yes!”

The world’s oceans have a plastic problem. However, a bold new approach from researchers at several institutions says that the same plastic could also be the solution.

Image via Pixabay.

The team, with members from Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and Harvard University, believes that the plastic clogging up our oceans can be used as fuel for ships that work to clean the oceans of plastic. In a new study, they describe the process through which plastic can be converted to ship fuel in order to support such a scheme.

If applied, this approach would allow ships to operate continuously to clean the oceans.

Putting it to good use

“Plastic waste accumulating in the world’s oceans forms massive ‘plastic islands’ in the oceanic gyres. Removing [it] offers an opportunity to restore our oceans to a more pristine state,” the authors explain. “To clean the gyres, ships must collect and store the plastic before transporting it to port, often thousands of kilometers away. Instead, ocean plastic waste can be converted into fuel shipboard, for example, using hydrothermal liquefaction”.

Millions of tons of plastic find their way into the ocean year after year. The smaller fragments disperse, while larger pieces of plastic clump together forming plastic ‘islands’. These tend to end up in ocean gyres, large systems of ocean currents generated by winds and the rotation of the planet that ‘spin’ in place.

Plastic waste poses a very real threat to marine life. As such, efforts to clean up the seas have been repeatedly attempted over time. Ships are sent out to garbage patches where they collect as much plastic as they can hold and bring it back to port for processing. Although this approach works, it’s by no means ideal. Going back and forth between these patches and port areas takes time, fuel, and slows down the efforts overall.

The authors of this study propose using the plastic itself as fuel for the ships and machines used to process the waste. This could have a powerful dual benefit. It would dramatically improve the efficiency of clean-up efforts by slashing downtime, while also being a greener option overall, as it would reduce emissions associated with fuel use (and ships can be very polluting).

Plastic waste can be converted to a type of oil via a process known as hydrothermal liquefaction (HTL), the authors explain. During HTL, plastic is heated to around 300–550 degrees Celsius (572-1022 Fahrenheit) at high pressure — 250 to 300 times the standard atmospheric pressure.

According to their estimates, one ship equipped with an HTL converter could produce enough oil to be self-sustainable (i.e. to keep both the ship and the converter operational). They envision a system where permanent collection booms would be stationed at multiple sites around a large garbage patch and maintain a steady supply of plastic for the ships to convert.

Such an approach is not without its problems. The HTL process itself, as well as the burning of the oil it produces, would obviously release carbon dioxide. That being said, the authors explain that it would still be a lower quantity than what a ship burning conventional fuel would emit during a clean-up mission. There would still be practical constraints on how long a mission could carry on for; the HTL process would produce a relatively small quantity of solid waste that would eventually need to be returned to port, and there’s only so much time a crew’s supplies and sanity can last for on the open seas. However, it would reduce the need for round trips down to once every few months or so, which would also be fueled by the oil produced by the converters.

I personally like the idea of such an approach. It makes practical sense, and I’m sold on the idea of turning a problem into an opportunity or solution. So far the idea is still in its theoretical stage, but it definitely has promise. Fingers crossed that we’ll see it implemented in the not-so-distant future.

The paper “Thermodynamic feasibility of shipboard conversion of marine plastics to blue diesel for self-powered ocean cleanup” has been published in the journal PNAS.

This device just cleaned up 9,000 kilograms of trash out of the ocean

Over the years, ungodly amounts of plastic trash have been accumulating in the Pacific Ocean between California and Hawaii – it’s an area so big it has its own name: Great Pacific Garbage Patch. No one knows exactly how much waste is there, but it’s safe to say it’s way too much. NGOs have repeatedly tried to clean it with several devices, without much success – until now.

Image credit: The Ocean Cleanup

Jenny from the oceans

Ocean Cleanup, a non-profit that wants to remove 90% of the floating ocean plastic by 2040 recently introduced a new large-scale cleanup system called Jenny, and the results are quite remarkable. Following a set of trials over the course of 12 weeks, the NGO did one final test last week, collecting 9,000 kilograms (20,000 pounds) of debris with the new system. 

Even Boyan Slat, the 27-year-old founder of Ocean Cleanup, was excited about the results. Slat wrote on Twitter “holy mother of god”, adding that a “massive load” had been captured. The NGO introduced its first plastic-catching device in 2018 but it broke in the water. Then, in 2019 a new model did a better job, but the organization said thousands of those would be needed to clean up the oceans. 

This led scientists to question whether the organization would achieve any results at all in tackling plastic waste. But over the summer Ocean Cleanup raised hopes again with Jenny, an artificial floating coastline that can catch plastic in its fold like a giant arm and then funnel the waste into the net. It’s moved by two vessels across the water, with the current pushing the garbage to a net. 

“We can only return to clean oceans if we clean up the ocean garbage patches. Stopping the source will prevent more plastic from entering the oceans. But the only way to reduce the amount of plastic across the ocean is to actually go out there and clean it up,” Slat wrote in a recent blog post. “The reason for this is that plastic pollution is persistent.”

A long-term effort

The device has come a long way since the original prototype. The latest version is U-shaped and more flexible, somewhat like the lane dividers in a swimming pool. Once the system is full of plastic, workers empty it on the marine vessel and take it to shore. Ocean Cleanup then recycles part of the plastic to make sunglasses that they sell to collect funds.  

Image credit: The Ocean Cleanup

Jenny collects different types of plastic waste, from large containers to very small microplastics. But it only captures plastic that is floating near the ocean surface, so it’s just a partial solution to our plastic problem. A study last year found there’s more than 30 times as much plastic at the bottom of the ocean than there’s near the surface. Plus, the device doesn’t stop more plastic from being thrown away — and it’ll never be able to pick up enough plastic if our current dumping rates continue. The organization estimates that they will need at least 10 of these devices to clean up 50% of the current Great Pacific Garbage Patch in five years. However, we produce about 300 million tonnes of plastic waste every year — and the vast majority of that isn’t recycled.

In addition, this plastic cleaning process comes at an environmental cost, as the whole process also uses some fossil fuel. The original idea was to passively collect plastic using the ocean current, but that led to spilling a lot of the trash that had been collected. 

Scientists agree that initiatives such as the one of the Ocean Clean Up will have to be accompanied by limiting or even eliminating the use of disposable plastic. A 2020 study found that more than 11 million metric tons of plastic enters the oceans every year, a figure expected to triple by 2040 without immediate and sustained action from governments and citizens. 

EU’s plastic ban officially comes into force. Here’s what you should know

A European Union (EU) directive from 2019 restricting certain single-use plastic products has now officially come into force, forcing governments to stop selling cutlery, straws, stirrers, bags, cotton bud sticks, and polystyrene drinks and food containers — plastics which account for 70% of the marine litter in Europe. 

Image credit: Flickr / Ivan Radic

The ban is part of a larger effort by Europe to cut plastic pollution by creating a circular economy model. By the end of the decade, the bloc aspires to have a de facto ban on throwaway plastics, a comprehensive reuse system for all other plastics, and an expensive and potentially lucrative European market for recycled plastics. 

EU member states have already created their own laws to implement the single-use plastics directive. Italy and Belgium introduced a plastic tax to disincentivize their use and France banned most fruit and vegetable packaging, for example. Overall, everyone will have to be in line with the circular economy model by the end of the decade. 

A circular economy is one in which all products and materials are used along their entire life cycle – from their design and manufacturing to reuse or recycling. This is in contrast with the current system, in which products end up in the trash instead of being reintroduced into the production process and extending their life cycle. 

The EU measures against plastic are already considered some of the toughest in the world, with the bloc having already pushed plastic packaging recycling rates to 41.5% – three times higher than in the US. Now, the bloc will seek to recycle 50% of the plastic packaging by 2025. And in 2025, a separate collection target of 77% will be in place for plastic bottles.  

The new plastic-free regime will rely on the widespread adoption of extended producer responsibility schemes. This means that if a company introduces packaging or packaged goods into a country’s market, that company remains responsible for the cost of collection, transportation, recycling or incineration of the plastic products. 

EU companies will also no longer be allowed to unload plastic waste on countries in the developing world such as Malaysia, Vietnam, India and Indonesia. This had been a strategy employed by several developed countries arond the world. Now, Europe will tackle the entirety of the plastic waste burden itself, which is where the new directive enters.

The plastic ban will also help the bloc to meet its ambitious climate target of reducing emissions by 55% below 1990 levels by 2030. The bloc estimates that the decline in plastic production could cut 3.4 million tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions, as well as prevent environmental damages that would cost up to 22 billion euros by 2030.

Is it enough, though?

Environmental organizations argue that that the 10-item ban only covers 1% of Europe’s plastic production, which is not nearly enough. They also said that the total quantity of plastic waste generation hasn’t declined in Europe, something the new measures seek to reverse, and questioned that medical-related plastics were exempted from the new rules. 

Face masks and gloves have become widespread during the Covid-19 pandemic, ending up as waste in land and marine environments and causing potentially harmful impacts on ecosystems. For researchers, disposable face masks have become as problematic as plastic bottles or even worse, with 129 billion used every month

Bottles, packets and wrappers, tobacco filters, sanitary items, wet wipes and beverage and food containers for immediate consumption will be only restricted and not properly banned. This means that producers can still use them but will have to pay for the clean-up and carry out awareness campaigns about the impact.

While EU countries still produce large amounts of plastic, the amount of post-consumer plastic waste sent to recycling increased 92% since 2006, according to PlasticsEurope, a leading pan-European association that represents plastics manufacturers. Meanwhile, landfilling has decreased by 54%. All plastic producers have to pay a levy of 800 euros per metric ton of non-recycled plastic packaging waste. 

Worldwide, between 14% and 18% of plastics are recycled, less than half the EU average. The US generates the largest amount of plastic waste in the world and only recycles less than 10%. The country’s strategy of sending plastic waste abroad was disrupted by China’s recent decision to no longer accept imported waste. Plastic pollution is one of the largest environmental crises mankind is facing at the moment.

Researchers travel to the bottom of the ocean and find almost intact plastic waste

If you’re an explorer visiting for the first time one of the deepest trenches of the ocean, you’re probably expecting to find many cool and new things, such as deep-sea creatures. For Dr. Deo Florence Onda, who just returned from visiting the Philippine Trench, the findings included something much more ubiquitous – plastic waste.

On the left, Dr. Onda and Mr. Vescovo. On the right, the plastic waste they found. Image credit: Caladan Oceanic.

Dr. Onda, a microbial oceanologist from the University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute, dove into the Emden Deep, part of the Philippines Trench, along with Victor Vescovo from Caladan Oceanic, an undersea tech company. It’s the third deepest spot on Earth and no human being had ever visited the place before. 

The trench reaches a depth of 10,540 meters and was first described in 1950 and then again in greater detail in 1970. For Dr. Onda, this was an opportunity to see what was happening down there with his own eyes. He told CNA that he expected to see “scary, crawling things” through the windows of the submarine but instead found something different.

Following the descent, Dr. Onda found plastic bags, food packaging, a teddy bear, and even clothes. He first believed that the white material floating in the water was a jellyfish, until they approached closer and realized it was just plastic. He was impressed by how intact was the plastic, describing it “as if they just came from the supermarket.”

Vescovo said the amount of human debris found in the trench, scattered around in pockets on the seabed, was “pretty extensive.” At such depths where oxygen and sunlight are absent, plastic and other materials do not degrade, Vescovo stated. For the researchers, it’s uncertain how the plastic made its way to the deep of the ocean. 

Still, they suspect the source could have been coastal communities near the trench, or the debris could have been washed over by ocean currents from Hawaii or other Pacific Islands. Plastic at such remote places isn’t something new. In another expedition in 2019 to the Mariana Trench, Vescovo found plastic waste at the bottom.

While the expedition wasn’t considered a marine scientific research activity, the explorers’ discovery highlighted the worrying extent and impact of human activities on the planet. Plastic waste is one of the largest environmental challenges the world is currently facing, with governments and companies taking action at single-use plastics. 

Bottles and food packaging are the most commonly discarded type of plastic. They are made almost exclusively from fossil fuels and are very hard to recycle, which means they usually end their short lifecycle by polluting the oceans. Asian countries like the Philippines and China produce a large number of such plastics every year.

Over time, plastic items in the ocean can break down into smaller pieces, known as microplastics. They can be the size of a rice grain or even smaller, making them easy to be ingested by sea creatures. These very small pieces of plastic are literally all over the place, even in some of the world’s most seemingly inaccessible regions, such as the Everest

“The Philippine Trench is already so deep, but human pollution was still able to reach it. What more for shallower environments like coral reefs and seagrass beds?” Onda told The Inquirer. “[If we don’t do anything], I wouldn’t be surprised if I would get confused if I was in the Philippine Trench or in Manila Bay.”

Your recycled plastic might be ending up in a landfill. Here’s why

You’re trying to do the right thing by throwing away that plastic container into the recycling bin. It even had a label that said it was recyclable, so you should be all good.

But unfortunately, there’s a good chance that it may end up in a landfill with the rest of the trash.

Credit Greenpeace

As part of a new study, Greenpeace looked at 367 recycling facilities across the US and found that only a small percentage of processed plates, cups, bags, and trays. Less than 15% received plastic clamshells and none accepted receiving coffee pods.

The recycling facilities only take in water and soda bottles, along with other thicker plastic for packaging. Most of the rest ends up in the trash, according to Greenpeace, which said other types of plastics can actually be recycled but that there’s currently no market for it in the US.

“Most types of plastics are not recyclable in the United States, and in fact appear to be illegal to even refer to as recyclable,” Greenpeace USA Oceans Campaign Director John Hocevar told VICE News. “Recycling isn’t broken, but plastic is choking it.”

Plastic is typically split in seven categories, numbered from #1 to #7:

  • Plastic #1: Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET). Typically used to make bottles and containers for condiments like ketchup, sauces, and jam.
  • Plastic #2: High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE). Used to make milk and some juice/water bottles, as well as shampoo and gel containers.
  • Plastic #3: Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC). This is most commonly used as a wrap for deli foods, beddings, plastic toys, and medication.
  • Plastic #4: Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE). Most commonly found in bags for bread, newspapers, fresh produce, as well as some milk cartons.
  • Plastic #5: Polypropylene (PP). Used for yogurt and takeout meals, among others.
  • Plastic #6: Polystyrene (PS). Also called styrofoam, this is commonly used to make cups, plates, bowls, take-out containers, trays and more.
  • Plastic #7: Other. All the other types of plastic.

The report argued the main problem is the plastics labeled from 3 to 7, many of which are used as a mixture with other types of materials — such as a coffee cup made of paper with plastic lining. They are very difficult and expensive to separate.

Nevertheless, most mixed plastics are branded as recyclable by manufacturing companies, Greenpeace noted. But recycling facilities find it had to repurpose them and instead just trash them away. All this is confusing customers, who are no longer sure what can be recycled or not (and are often deceived into believing many of their products are recycled when in fact, they are not).

Most of those mixed plastics used to be shipped from the US to China. In fact, the same happened with other countries, as 70% of the world’s plastic went to China. But it all changed in 2018 when China decided to cut back almost all imports of trash. Now, countries as the US were left without the capacity to process their plastics and are starting to face the problems they have swept under the rug for years.

“Post-consumer “mixed” plastics (plastics #3-7 and non-bottle plastics #1 and #2) have been most affected because China was the primary destination for those types of collected plastic wastes and there is minimal demand, value or reprocessing capacity for them in the U.S,” said Greenpeace’ report.

Greenpeace said it could soon file federal complaints against manufacturers as they are misleading the public about the recyclability of their packaging. The NGO said companies that produce the plastic that is ultimately responsible for the plastics crisis, calling for accurate labeling.

Speaking to the Guardian, the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, which represents brands trying to improve packaging, said the recycling industry was facing disruption. Nevertheless, she added that new US processing capacity was being developed to enhance the recyclability of products.

In terms of plastic recycling, the United States ranks behind Europe (30%) and China (25%) in recycling, the study found. Recycling in the U.S. has remained at 9% since 2012, according to a study published last year. But the problem is much wider, with most countries struggling with their waste.

A 2019 study published in Science Advances showed that of the 8.3 billion metric tons that have been produced, 6.3 billion metric tons has become plastic waste. Of that, only nine percent have been recycled. The vast majority (79%) is accumulating in landfills and then ends up in the ocean.

Recycling labels might sometimes be misleading, the report warns.

We can’t just get rid of all plastic, experts agree, as some its unavoidable. Plastic extends the life of produce and acts as a barrier to bacteria, for example. Nevertheless, we can learn how to better recycle it and replace it when possible with our own reusable containers.

For example, plastic wrap can’t be recycled as it’s hard to deal with at the material recovery facility, as well as small plastics as bag clips and flexible packaging. On the other hand, beverage bottles can be recycled as well as other bottles such as shampoo and soap.

Plastic clamshells are made from the same elements as beverage bottles, but not all recycling facilities can process them. Meanwhile, polystyrene foam can’t be recycled as it’s made of air and requires a special machine to process it, which most recycling facilities don’t have.

In the last few years, states have also implemented regulation on plastics, such as California and Maine, which set restrictions on the use of plastic straws and single-use plastics. Now, Democrats are pushing a bill to ban nationwide the use of several types of single-use plastics, cutting the problem at its source.

Thailand ramps up action on plastic waste with a ban starting in 2021

In line with commitments from companies and governments across the world, Thailand has pledged to implement a ban on single-use plastics in 2021, implementing penalties for those violating the new norms, according to local sources.

Phi Phi island in Thailand has been dealing with severe issues of plastic waste. Credit Wikimedia Commons

The initiative is reportedly being implemented by Environment Minister Warawut Silpa-archa, who is working with the national cabinet and related agencies to raise public awareness on the campaign.

Guidelines on the ban are currently being developed but the goal will be to ban three types of plastics, microbeads, cap seals and oxo-degradable plastics, by the end of 2021. The other four types, lightweight plastic bags, styrofoam food containers, plastic cups, and plastic straws, will follow in 2022.

According to the new plan, customers in department and convenience stores won’t be given any more single-use plastic bags from next year, replacing them with paper or cloth bags. Dozens of shopping malls and stores such as 7-Eleven and HomePro have already pledged to fulfil the new scheme.

However, some have expressed a healthy dose of skepticism.

“This is a good start … I hope this is not just a PR exercise” said Tara Buakamsri, Greenpeace’s country director in Thailand. “The challenges is in the working details in how to measure progress and ensure that the measure is effective in really banning the use of plastic bag.”

The initiative is framed in what’s called Thailand’s Plastic Waste Management Road Map 2018-2030. Goals are also long-term, with an ambitious plan for Thailand to use 100% recycled plastic by 2027 in various forms, including turning waste into energy – a procedure rejected in some countries.

A total of 150 million tons of plastic waste are circulating in oceans, seas, and other water sources, having built up since the 1950s, according to Ocean Conservancy. Thailand is responsible for much of that, as the sixth country to dump the most waste into the sea, according to Siam Commercial Bank’s Economic Intelligence Center.

According to Greenpeace, about 75 billion pieces of plastic bags end up in the waste each year in Thailand. Half of that amount comes from malls, supermarkets, and convenience stores, with the other half coming from traditional markets and street vendors.

Thai people generate as much as 1.14 kilograms of garbage per head per day, contributing to the 27.04 million tons of waste per year, according to Thailand’s Department of Environmental Quality Promotion. Each person uses an average of eight plastic bags a day.

Only industrial companies in Thailand with more than 50 employees and machinery exceeding 50 horsepower are subject to monitoring for waste discharge and antipollution measures. This has been frequently questioned by environmental groups, pushing the government to act on plastic waste.

Joining a global movement

Thailand’s decision to ramp up action on plastic waste follows previous commitments by countries and companies across the globe, reacting to new reports of the negative consequences of single-use plastics.

India imposed last October a nationwide ban on plastic bags, cups, and straws. The European Union plans to ban single-use plastic items such as straws, forks, knives and cotton buds by 2021, while California would commit to a 75% reduction in plastic waste by 2030.

According to Ocean Conservancy, plastic has been found in more than 60% of all seabirds and in 100% of sea turtles species, as they eat it thinking it’s food. This can affect their nutrient uptake and challenge their feeding efficiency, threatening their lives.

About 2.5 billion metric tons of solid waste is produced around the world and within that 275 million metric tons is a plastic waste, the NGO estimates. About eight million metric tons of plastic goes into the ocean every year, on top of the 150 million tons that are already there.

Recycling plastic could become easier thanks to this new technology

As the world seeks new and innovative ways to deal with the plastic problem, a “biorecycling” factory in France has created a process that lets any plastic be recycled into any other plastic. This could change the market for recycling and help increase the volume of plastic that’s recycled.

Credit Wikipedia Commons

The France-based startup Carbios developed a process through which PET plastic waste is mixed with water and enzymes, heated up, and churned. The enzymes decompose the plastic into the material’s basic building blocks, which can then be separated, purified, and used to make new plastic.

Unlike traditional recycling, which degrades materials each time you do it, this type of “biorecycling” can happen repeatedly without a loss in quality. “Our process can use any kind of PET waste to manufacture any kind of PET object,” said Martin Stephan, the company’s deputy CEO.

By working with different types of waste, the company believes that it can help increase the volume of plastic that’s recycled. That’s critical for keeping plastic out of the environment, and it’s also key at a time when manufacturers have new goals to ramp up their use of recycled packaging.

For example, Nestlé plans to use 50% recycled plastic in its packaging in the U.S. by 2025. Earlier this year, Nestlé, along with PepsiCo and Suntory Food and Beverages, joined a consortium with L’Oreal and Carbios to help the recycling technology get to market more quickly.

“They need more recycled materials . . . and they know that reaching those goals is impossible with the existing technologies,” Stephan told Fast Company. “It’s not enough. You don’t have enough volume, and you don’t have enough quality. We will bring volumes by recycling material waste, which today is not recycled because they have low or no value.”

According to Stephan, around one million metric tons of PET food containers go on the market in Europe each year. But the recycling rate is close to zero, both because the trays are contaminated with food and because the structure of the plastic means that it can’t easily be recycled into the form used to make plastic bottles.

But the new process would make it economically viable for recyclers to work with that waste. There’s still a challenge of getting consumers to recycle in the first place. If they better understand that there’s value in the material, recycling rates might increase, Stephan argued.

Carbios developed the technology by starting at a landfill. It put pieces of plastic near the landfill, then studied the biology of the soil in places where the plastic had partially degraded over time. In the soil, some microorganisms were evolving to use enzymes to break down plastic.

Several startups are also working on a new generation of recycling technology, but Carbios says that there are some advantages to using biology rather than chemical recycling. The process uses lower temperatures than another new tech, saving energy. It doesn’t use solvents. And it can accept a wider range of waste.

Earlier this year, the company demonstrated that it could make a 100% recycled plastic bottle using the new process. The ground will break on the company’s first demonstration plant this year, which is expects to open in 2021. It plans to license the tech to PET producers, which can plug it into their existing plants that make plastic from oil.

There’s a newly found responsible for ocean plastic waste — merchant ships

Despite initially thought to come from land, most plastic debris in the sea can be linked to merchant ships, according to a new study which analyzed plastic bottles and containers from the past three decades.

Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Researchers looked at the waste that arrived at the coast of Inaccessible Island – an isolated, uninhabited island in the central South Atlantic Ocean – and found that plastic drink bottles were the fastest-growing source of debris.

While tides could be blamed for the South American bottles that washed up there, they didn’t explain why most of the bottles there now are from Asia. Their recent manufacturing dates suggest that ships are the main culprits.

This means that the vast garbage patches floating in the middle of oceans, which have sparked much consumer handwringing in recent years, are less the product of people dumping single-use plastics in waterways or on land than initially thought.

The island examined by the researchers is located roughly midway between Argentina and South Africa in the South Atlantic gyre, a vast whirlpool of currents that has created what has come to be known as an oceanic garbage patch.

Despite an initial inspection of the trash showed labels indicating it had come from South America (some 2,000 miles / 3,000 kilometers to the west), by 2018 three-quarters of the garbage appeared to originate from Asia, mostly China. Many of the plastic bottles had been crushed with their tops screwed on tight, as is customary on-board ships to save space.

Around 90 percent of the bottles found had been produced in the previous two years, ruling out the possibility that they had been carried by ocean currents over the vast distance from Asia, which would normally take three to five years.

Since the number of Asian fishing vessels has remained stable since the 1990s, while the number of Asian—and in particular, Chinese—cargo vessels has vastly increased in the Atlantic, the researchers concluded that the bottles must come from merchant vessels, which toss them overboard rather than dumping them as trash at ports.

“It’s inescapable that it’s from ships, and it’s not coming from land,” Peter Ryan, director of the FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. “A certain sector of the merchant fleet seems to be doing that, and it seems to be largely an Asian one.”

Plastic sandwich baggy floating in the water column. Fish that feed on various salps, jelly-fish, etc. mistake such trash for food and can ingest this with fatal consequences. Credit: Ben Mierement, NOAA NOS.

Efforts to fight plastic pollution are working: Fewer plastic bags found around UK waters

British scientists have fished out all sorts of plastic debris from waters surrounding the UK, then compared the type and number of polluting items to records from up to 25 years ago. The analysis found a decline in certain types of plastic pollution, suggesting that local measures like taxing supermarket carry bags are working. However, there is still much to go.

Plastic sandwich baggy floating in the water column. Fish that feed on various salps, jelly-fish, etc. mistake such trash for food and can ingest this with fatal consequences. Credit: Ben Mierement, NOAA NOS.

Plastic sandwich baggy floating in the water column. Fish that feed on various salps, jellyfish, etc. mistake such trash for food and can ingest this with fatal consequences. Credit: Ben Mierement, NOAA NOS.

Previously, the British government has implemented all sorts of measures aimed at curbing plastic waste, such as charging for plastic carrier bags or bottle deposit schemes — and these seem to work. One recent survey found that the supermarket carrier bag charge led to an 80% decrease in their use throughout England. Now, researchers at the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas) have confirmed the trend — this time, on the seafloor around English waters.

“It is encouraging to see that efforts by all of society, whether the public, industry, NGOs or government to reduce plastic bags are having an effect,” said Dr. Thomas Maes, a marine litter scientist at Cefas and the report’s lead author.

“We observed sharp declines in the percentage of plastic bags as captured by fishing nets trawling the seafloor around the UK compared to 2010 and this research suggests that by working together we can reduce, reuse and recycle to tackle the marine litter problem.”

The findings were based on records of 2,500 ocean trawls conducted by ships between 1992 and 2017. On average, over the 25-year period, 60% of a trawl’s contents was plastic.

The researchers observed a 30% decline in carrier bags in the trawls since charges were introduced. However, the overall amount of deep-sea litter has remained roughly constant due to an increase in the number of other plastic items, including bottles and fishing debris. But, overall, the findings presented in the journal Science of the Total Environment represent some good news — finally!

The government is now considering implementing a charge on disposable coffee cups, as recommended by the Environmental Audit Committee. In fact, any kind of disposable plastic should be charged, by this reasoning — from straws to cutlery and wrapping.

Currently, carry bags are taxed with 5p (¢7) in the UK, which led to 9 million fewer plastic bags in circulation since the levy was introduced. Mary Creagh, who chairs the Environmental Audit Committee, recommends the government add a 25p (¢35) ‘latte levy’ to curb the ‘mountain of coffee cup waste.’

The rest of the world ought to follow this example too, if we’re to avoid turning the oceans into circulating litter bins. By one estimate, the amount of plastic trash in the ocean could triple within a decade if current trends continue unabated.  According to a 2014 study, there are at least 5.25 trillion pieces of trash which weigh an estimated 269,000 tonnes. The real number, however, might even be much larger than that.

“The fewer bags we use, the fewer we can lose, the fewer we can put into the environment,” Thomas Maes, the paper’s lead author, told The Guardian. “If we all work together towards a better environment, we can make changes. A lot of people live in doom, but … don’t give up yet.”