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The Putative Solutions to Persistent Plastic Pollution

Manual Shoreline Clean-up

I fully understand the sense of personal frustration which leads people to want to just do something, and going and cleaning up the visible pollution and big pieces of garbage from a beach does have some value. However, the plastic which is doing the bulk of the damage to wildlife like shorebirds is the small pieces of plastic (micro- and nano-plastic) which we simply don't pick-up by hand, because they are hard for humans to see.

We have one suggestion on how to make these manual clean-up initiatives more effective. Remove the tiny floating plastic bits with a 'float and filter' approach. We describe this in our 'De-plasticizing the Ocean' 3-pager. (Use whatever filter you choose. We like the ADsorb-It filter fabric because it traps oil as well as the floating plastic bits.)

'Biodegradable' Substitutes

It seems so obvious: mix organic materials with some science and a bit of environmental flair, and we could create substitutes for all the consumer plastic which will serve just as well as the petro-plastics for their intended uses, and then just dissolve into natural elements with time. Except that after decades of trying, nothing quite seems to work. Corn starch, UV-degradable plastics, weak-chain polymers, and more. The UV-degradable materials last indefinitely if buried. Some of the items fail prematurely. There are a wide variety of nominally biodegradeable plastics, so it is unwise to generalize across all of them in terms for characteristics, costs or practicality in specific applications. Viable solutions may be out there, I'm just not aware of any being used in volume. (If you have such a self-return-to-natural-elements-quickly but does-not-fail-prematurely solution, let us know. We'll put up a link here so others can evaluate it.

3-D Printers

Yes, they can save on packing materials and shipping costs, but the actual material used to make the pieces is usually a long-lasting plastic polymer, so we're back to having more plastic, most of which is not suitable for recycling programs (and certainly will not be marked as such in the typical home-based or low-volume production 3D printing is primarily used for).

Shipping the Plastic Waste Somewhere Else

We keep trying this, but the reality is we only have one planet, and wherever we ship it, it stays on the same planet we're living on. Waste plastic hide-and-seek isn't a game we can win, and we just use more energy shuffling the stuff around, creating more pollution and green-house gases.

Turn the Waste Plastic Back Into Oil

This one pops up pretty regularly in various guises. Technically, it is possible. However, I have yet to see a validated study of the energy return on energy invested which shows we get more energy from the reconstituted oil than we spent producing it, and if we burn the reconstituted oil, it's still a fossil fuel making pollution and greenhouse gases. This is just a guess, but if we use electricity to melt the plastic and fractionate it to obtain a usable fluid oil to power a vehicle, I expect we would be better off (in terms of overall efficiency and environmental impact) to just use the same electricity to charge up an electric car and get more distance travelled without the intermediate steps.

Reuse, Repurposing

I'm a fan. I collect plastic bags and give them to thrift stores so they can provide a bag to customers without buying more plastic bags. I refill 2-litre plastic drink bottles with water and use them for thermal storage. I use plastic food containers to store other foods, such as batches of spaghetti sauce and left-overs. I take windshield washer fluid jugs back to bullk dispensing operators. I'll wash out and reuse some of the more rugged 'single-use' drink bottles. However, I recognize that these efforts reduce the demand for more new plastic by a trivial amount, and eventually the plastic ends up in the waste stream anyway. I also realize the majority of people don't make this much effort. Which is why we have an annual spring event in our neighbourhood to peel all the plastic bags off the chain-link fence downwind from an open field which is part of an informal walking infrastructure between a housing area and a number of stores and services.

Plastic-eating Microbes

This one comes up occasionally, and has again recently. However, this needs to be taken with a few caveats. This particular microbe is believed to have evolved (mutation) in a plastic waste dump. However, in order to come up with something sufficiently effective to be useful, the scientists have modified the mutant strain, and propose to modify it more to make it more 'effective'. We have a large, immediate problem. This path will take years to be ready for real-world use. However, release on beaches on seafloors certainly gives me pause. How do we tell the enhanced, fast-plastic-eating microbes to eat only the plastic pollution, and not the existing plastic infrastructure we want to keep? Like boats made of FRP, protective coatings on marine cables and pipelines, car parts, telephone line insulation, power cable insulation, fibre-optic protective covering, PVC and ABS plumbing and water-mains, vinyl siding, food and chemical storage containers ...? We know industrial agriculture can't contain GMO food crop strains; there is no reason to believe we can control a GMO microbe which we have intentionally released into the wild.

Even if any of these ideas or approaches actually worked, none of these address the exsisting pollution in the environment. For that, we need a different way of thinking about the problem.

Next: Things That Don't Work

Types of Plastic
The Science of Plastic Pollution
Media Items on Plastic Pollution
Some Interesting Approaches
Things That Don't Work
Things That Do Work
De-plasticizing the Ocean (2017 RESTCo 3-pager)
Removing microplastic from shoreline/beach (demo)
RESTCo Plastic Pollution Solution
Capturing Micro- and Nano-plastics from the Waste Stream
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