What Can Be Done About End-Of-Life Plastics?
14 Jul 2016
As consumers, we use plastic products every day in our personal and professional lives. However, the question as to how they can be reused, recycled and eventually disposed of in a sustainable way at the end of their useful lifespan is one that preoccupies material engineers and environmentalists alike. Scientists are constantly innovating in the field in identifying new approaches for managing end of life plastics.
A start-up in Australia has just found a new way in which to convert end of life plastic waste into crude bio-fuel. However, using this fuel would emit greenhouse gases into the environment, so the solution isn’t as ‘green’ as it immediately seems to be. However, it would to some extent alleviate the problem of landfill.
Researchers have found that mealworms can be used to munch away at end of life plastics. These bugs happily munch on polystyrene and other plastic products that otherwise head straight to landfill and are considered impossible to recycle. Scientists involved in the research admitted that they were amazed by the results. With gut microbes added to their styrofoam diet, the worms managed to convert over 50 per cent of the plastic into Co2, and the remaining 50 per cent into organic droppings. The worms were found to be healthy afterwards and the waste products appeared to be suitable to nourish crops as a soil enricher, although further research is needed.
Engineers are looking more closely at the design stage of plastic materials, in order that they can create them with obvious solutions for the end of life scenario. As an example, plastic waste can be re-used in vehicle manufacture or in packaging. In the EU, there is legislation which places end of life processes and responsibilities with producers. Waste reduction is certainly vital, and plastic pallets are being designed to be reused many times, to support materials source reduction and waste management.
Manufacturers are working towards the ISO 14040:2006 standard to demonstrate that they are considering waste management throughout the design and usage lifecycle. Some plastics can be reverted back to component chemical materials through processing and can be reused in other industrial applications. Mechanical recycling sees waste materials recovered in their original molecular structure and then transformed into new products. Energy recovery is also an option, albeit an unpopular one due to the greenhouse gases that are emitted during incineration.
The environmental imperative
Ultimately, solutions must be found to maximise the re-use of materials such as plastics when they reach the end of their useful lifespan. Failure to do so will mean that the world will continue to become ever more polluted with overflowing landfill and damaging waste products that harm fragile ecosystems. Whether dealing with used plastic pallets or plastic crates, or indeed other materials, the industry, researchers and environmentalists need to work together to find usable solutions that can be rapidly implemented for a greener future.