Want to clean up the environment? Learn to love plastic.
The final destination for most cars—after they’ve served their time in a scrapyard, that is—is a 10,000-horsepower shredding machine that, in about 60 seconds, rips them into fist-size chunks of stuff. This material is then whisked away on a conveyer belt and sorted for recycling. A magnet pulls out the steel and other ferrous metals, while a separator takes care of the non-ferrous metals, like copper, brass and aluminum.
But petroleum-based plastic—and there’s a lot of it in cars—presents a problem. Plastics range greatly in type and grade and therefore can’t be recycled together, but their densities and electrical properties are similar and often overlap, making them nearly impossible to separate. That’s why they’re typically bundled together with other tough-to-recycle material (rubber, wood, fabrics, foam) and shuttled off to landfills or burned in incinerators. Mike Biddle, president and co-founder of MBA Polymers, thinks that’s unacceptable.
“Burning [plastic] is obviously not the best thing to do for the environment and reburying it is a waste of a natural resource,” Biddle says. “Why pump oil out of the ground when we’ve already put so much energy into making these materials? Let’s just use them again.”
Biddle is one of a growing number of entrepreneurs that reject the current environmental orthodoxy that “plastic is evil” and should be phased out. Eliminating plastic altogether, they argue, isn’t only unrealistic but undesirable. Without plastic, there would be no laptops, cell phones, refrigerators, toothbrushes, traffic lights or countless other products on which we depend. Plastic is, in fact, one of the most valuable materials around. It’s durable, lightweight, adaptable to a dizzying array of applications, and—with the right mix of responsible re-use and non-petroleum-based alternatives—ecologically friendly.
“We should be celebrating plastic,” says Anthony Zolezzi, co-founder of Greenopolis and the GreenOps Recycling System, an interactive approach to giving “trash” a second life. “It’s how we abuse it and don’t re-use it that’s a problem. [Plastic is] an amazing ingredient that we should look at as a precious material, no different than we look at gold.”
MBA Polymers has developed a technology suite that spins plastic into gold—by separating, sterilizing, melting, pelletizing and remolding plastics recovered from shredded electronics, computers and cars. The final product is as pure as virgin plastic that, unlike nearly every other recycled plastic, needs no added virgin plastic to ready it for use. The whole process consumes only 5 to 10 percent of the energy required to make virgin plastic. “In the early years, everyone was skeptical that we could do what we said we could do,” recalls Biddle. “No one believed it, including the plastics industry. Now, the skeptics are pretty much gone.”
MBA Polymers has opened three factories around the world—in California, China and Austria—with the ability to process 44,000 tons of plastic annually. In October, the firm will open a fourth plant in Sheffield, England, with the capacity to process 50 percent more plastic. MBA plans to open at least one new factory a year, with the ultimate goal of keeping all those discarded cars, laptops, toasters, fridges, TVs, cell phones and iPods from ending up in the environment.
“Plastics are the last frontier in terms of major material categories to be re-used,” Biddle says. “If you look at metals, glass and wood, they’re recycled at much higher rates than plastics around the world. It’s not because the plastic isn’t valuable but because it’s very difficult to separate. That’s why we’re here.”
Proponents like Biddle and Zolezzi aren’t blind to the dangers plastic poses. Additives leach into the environment, disrupting the hormonal balances of marine life. Plastic bags flap in the wind like prayer flags at the edges of many towns in the Sahara. Research by Charles Moore, founder of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, suggests that, at its densest, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch contains about 3 million pieces of plastic per square mile, a million per square kilometer.
Plastic in the oceans is gathered together by ocean currents known as gyres; the Great Garbage Patch in the Pacific Ocean is more than a mile deep. Individual pieces are on the average smaller than a pea, making them impossible to clean up and easy for fish to mistake for food. Larger fish like tuna, mahi-mahi and salmon eat the small fish that eat the plastic, and we eat the larger fish, which some scientists believe could lead to increasing rates of infertility in women, among other harmful side effects.
“The ocean is a plastic soup and these gyres are concentrators,” Moore says. “It’s like the land is flushing plastic out and the toilet bowl is the gyres, and they have this swirling motion like the toilet but it never flushes. It just collects there and spins around and around.”
The environmental damage caused by plastic is real—and requires urgent solutions. For the new plastics entrepreneurs, though, the response shouldn’t be to abolish plastic but to create and use it more responsibly. Close the loop on recycling plastic (in the U.S., a paltry 6 to 7 percent of all plastic is recycled), develop better technologies to re-purpose it, reduce packaging to the bare minimum and find renewable resources to replace petroleum-based virgin plastic. This isn’t a distant technological dream; it’s happening right now.
E-waste (from computers, phones and other information technologies) and automotive shredder residue (of the kind that MBA Polymers recycles) are some of the biggest and least visible parts of today’s plastic recycling challenge. But what about the stuff we’re asked to dispose of on a daily basis: the plastic wrapping on a new dress, the bubble wrap in a UPS box, plastic wine corks or those little bits of hard-shell plastic you can’t even identify?
Peter Lewis, founder of Byfusion in Dunedin, New Zealand, found himself motivated by this very challenge. “Only about 20 percent of plastic in the whole waste stream is identifiable,” Lewis says. “That other 80 percent is the real problem. More often than not, it quietly slides into the landfill or slides somewhere else we don’t hear about.”
Lewis developed a machine designed to deal with that other 80 percent. The machine accepts any type of plastic, no matter its type or grade, shreds it, sterilizes it and spits it out in the form of a plastic block with an interlocking design, like a Lego brick. The blocks can be assembled into garden walls, erosion barriers on the banks of rivers or noise and safety barriers along the collars of highways. In preliminary studies, the plastic blocks have proven excellent at absorbing the impact from automobiles, making them ideal fender material. “We can make products out of any type of plastic,” Lewis boasts.
This year, the town of Dunedin agreed to install the machine in its 10,000-ton-a-day plant, as long as Byfusion can prove a market demand for its blocks. Lewis is hopeful. “We just need to get this one going and I think the other areas of the world will say, ‘Well, that’s sensible, that’s affordable, it’s doable, it’s simple. Can we have a machine, too, please?’”
Not all plastic is difficult to identify: Everyone recognizes soda bottles with a big number 1 seared into their sides, for example, or laundry detergent bottles with a big number 2 embossed on their bottoms. The numbers, which range from 1 to 7, are a standard code to help consumers identify and sort the main types of plastic: Number 1 represents polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and number 2 represents high-density polyethylene (HDPE), together the most frequently recycled plastics.
Unfortunately, ease of identification often doesn’t translate to recycling success. Current estimates suggest only half of U.S. households have access to curbside recycling, and only half of those with access use it. Europe enjoys much better overall recycling rates—Switzerland recycles 80 percent of its PET plastic—though the average for numbered plastics throughout the European Union is just 20 percent. To boost these numbers, companies have come up with rewards-based communities.
RecycleBank, based out of New York City, partners with municipalities in the U.S. and the U.K. to increase landfill diversion and bolster revenue from recycled plastic and aluminum. Participating households are rewarded with coupons redeemable at participating local businesses. Statistics show that the recovery of recyclables often doubles with the RecycleBank system in place.
Greenopolis, another rewards-based system, is headquartered in Los Angeles and targets individuals rather than municipalities. The company launched in 2009 and has since installed 335 kiosks in the U.S., mostly at Whole Foods Markets with a few at college campuses and in stadiums like the Staples Center in L.A. and Sun Life Stadium in Miami.
“Cradle to cradle is the big aspiration here,” says Greenopolis’ Zolezzi. “Plastic can help us live to abundance and have hope. It’s just that we have to identify that it’s a precious resource and get it out of people’s heads that it’s nasty and should be eliminated—that’s not true. It just needs to be re-used.”
Every Greenopolis kiosk has a touch screen, like an ATM, and a scanner that can identify any plastic with a barcode. Once the plastic is dropped into the appropriate bin, the kiosk prints a receipt with reward points redeemable at any of Greenopolis’ 10,000 retail partners, ranging from restaurants and rental car agencies to hotels and clothing stores.
The points can also be saved in an online user account on Greenopolis’ website, which serves as a hub for information about recycling and plastic. A virtual ticker keeps a running tab on how many bottles have been recycled through Greenopolis (latest count: 4,911,249), and new educational content is posted three times a day to Greenopolis’ YouTube channel. Users can earn points for commenting on educational content or participating in virtual games on Greenopolis’ Facebook page, which has 30,000 fans.
Zolezzi says the company plans to install an additional 3,000 kiosks by the first quarter of 2011 and double that by the end of 2011. This spring, PepsiCo launched a new recycling initiative, the Dream Machine, which aims to put recycling kiosks in public venues like gas stations, parks and stadiums across the country. Greenopolis will operate all Dream Machines.
“Re-use is nothing new,” Zolezzi says, pointing to the rationing of flour, tin and aluminum during World War II as a model for the way a society can work together to conserve. “We just have a generational gap in frivolous use of plastics and derivatives without thinking about the consequences.”
But no matter how thorough our efforts, recycling alone won’t change the fact that the techniques by which we source and recycle plastics remain problematic. Nearly all virgin plastic is made from petroleum or natural gas, both of which are non-renewable resources. What’s more, even if we collected all virgin plastic after consumer use, only a small percent would be made into new plastic. The rest, as is the case with most recycled plastic today, would be turned into carpets, shirts, shopping bags or Patagonia fleeces that, after a couple years, would end up in the landfill.
Plastic therefore needs to be re-invented as well as recycled.
NatureWorks, founded in 2003, has created a “bioplastic” sourced entirely from plant sugar. The plastic, named Ingeo, can be safely composted in 60 days, so food waste from restaurants and fast food chains (which is typically contaminated with non-compostable cups, forks and spoons) can go to composters rather than landfills. Better yet, if separated properly, Ingeo can be melted down to its virgin form and reprocessed with close to 100 percent efficiency.
Some of the end products the company makes include T-shirts and sweaters, a personal care item like baby wipes, snack packaging and home electronics like laptops and photocopiers. “Anything that can be made out of plastic, people are interested in making out of bioplastic,” says Steve Davies, a plastics engineer by trade and NatureWorks’ director of marketing.
Bioplastic has come under fire for placing pressure on crops like corn and sugarcane. NatureWorks ferments sugars from corn to make lactic acid, the stuff you feel burning in your thighs when you hop on a treadmill. The lactic acid is then polymerized and turned into plastic. So it’s no coincidence that NatureWorks is headquartered in Blair, Nebraska, the heart of corn country. But Davies insists that the amount of corn the company uses puts little to no stress on the corn market. More important, the company is developing technologies and supply streams to make plastic entirely from agricultural waste resins.
Another criticism of bioplastic is that it contaminates traditional recycling streams. Again, Davies disagrees. Ingeo is marked as a number 7 plastic, and if recyclers invest in infrared equipment, it can easily be detected and sorted out, he says. The real problem is that recycling facilities haven’t had an economic incentive to separate out anything but the 1s and 2s. “It’s very cost effective and cheap to turn this plastic back into lactic acid,” Davies argues, offering market opportunities for other firms.
Belgium-based Galactic, the leading global supplier of lactic acid and lactates, has begun to collect post-consumer Ingeo plastic, which it depolymerizes back into raw lactic acid. BioCor, a start-up in the San Francisco Bay Area, has even started collecting post-consumer Ingeo and is selling it back to NatureWorks.
This activity will only increase as more firms get into the bioplastic market. Metabolix, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is developing a bioplastic made by microbial fermentation. After use, Metabolix plastic biodegrades in fresh and marine water, soil and the compost pile. At his Algalita lab in southern California, Charles Moore is running tests to determine exactly how long it takes marine-degradable plastics to degrade.
Craig Criddle, a professor at Stanford Engineering, is pursuing an infinitely recyclable bioplastic synthesized from bacteria-fermented methane. The California Green Chemistry Initiative, a government program run by the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), supports his and Moore’s work. The program identifies potential problems with plastics (like toxic additives), establishes regulations and encourages businesses to choose and design smarter alternatives. “Looking for safer alternatives, they often find better alternatives that have better functions as well,” says Bruce Labelle, chief scientist at the DTSC lab. “It can be a win-win.”
The Coca-Cola Company is pursuing its own brand of green chemistry. In 2009, Coca-Cola released PlantBottle, a plastic bottle made from up to 30 percent plant-based material, yet chemically indistinguishable from traditional PET bottles, meaning it can be recycled without contaminating waste streams. “We’re focused on 100 percent of our bottles with up to 30 percent plant-based material by 2020,” says Scott Vitters, director of sustainable packaging at Coca-Cola. “The technology is proven and we are marching very hard toward that destination while we work on the technology to get us to 100 percent [plant-based bottles].” Coca-Cola is rolling out PlantBottle with select brands in Denmark, Canada and the U.S., and hopes to partner with other beverage companies in the coming years.
With the right combination of recycling, re-use and innovation, plastic could soon become a renewable resource.
Andrew Tolve intends to reduce, reuse and recycle even more than he did before.