Granite Geek: Alas, chemical technology can’t solve the disaster that plastic contamination has become

  • A frontloader consolidates a mound of plastic at the Springfield Materials Recycling Facility on Feb. 4, 2020. Valley Advocate file

Granite Geek
Published: 6/27/2022 4:50:41 PM

None of us, it’s safe to say, is immune to the appeal of the quick Techno-Fix even though they have let us down time and again. This includes our lawmakers, who have just doubled down and decided that a new Techno-Fix can solve the problems of an old Techno-Fix.

You know what I mean by Techno-Fix: a single technology that will solve a sweeping problem. The Internet will make us wise! Nuclear power will be too cheap to meter!  Plastic has none of the shortcomings of every other material!

I embraced all those ideas as they arrived and then watched as benefits were swamped by unintended consequences – socially destructive self-absorption, cost and construction delays, microplastics in our bloodstream  – turning each solution into a new problem. 

But let’s try again, shall we?

That’s the thinking behind SB367, a bill signed into law by Gov. Chris Sununu this month. It makes New Hampshire the first state in New England to welcome the idea of solving the world’s plastic disaster by subjecting all that trash to heat and/or pressure and/or chemical solvents and perhaps turning it into something useful, like other plastics or fuel.

In other words, a Techno-Fix to fix the problems of a Techno-Fix.

Plastics don’t get recycled now because they’re not one thing. There are too many types to count, each with a different molecular structure and different attributes – strength, flexibility, resistance to UV or moisture, appearance – that gives them different melting points and reaction to solvents. They all have to be recycled in different ways: there’s no single process that is “recycling plastic.”

Since most products are made of more than one type of plastic that can’t easily be separated, it is extremely expensive to do anything with them except burn them – leaving a nasty residue – or trash them until they end up in the ocean. Which is what we do 90% of the time.

The promise of this new Techno-Fix, which industries have given the brand name of “advanced recycling,” is to overcome the too-many-plastics problem with physics and chemistry.

Engineering-wise, it’s a fine idea that uses technologies that are solid and well understood.

There’s pyrolysis – very high heat in chambers with inert gas – and solvolysis – chemical solvents that “melt” plastic – and a few other approaches that have a long history of success. Each of them can break apart complex molecules like those found in your water bottle so they can be recombined into something else.

Using them to transform plastic trash into usable material or fuel seems a reasonable idea. It might work in a perfect world.

But it won’t work in this one.

New Hampshire’s bill, and bills like it in a dozen other states, is mostly hand-waving that skips over the two big stumbling blocks: Paying for the energy-intensive processes and collecting all the plastic trash in the first place.

Anything can be recycled if you’re willing to spend enough money to gather the material and do the processes. But that happens only if the dollar return is greater or the government requires it – and neither will happen with plastic recycling, advanced or otherwise.

The cost of advanced recycling means its products will always be more expensive than those made from petroleum. It will be, at best, a niche process that mostly serves to distract us from the necessary but very difficult job of reducing the amount of plastic we use, which explains why the chemical and petroleum industries, the folks who make and sell plastic, are such fans of this approach.

Consider that the New Hampshire bill doesn’t fund research into these processes or build plants to do it or require companies to adopt it. The only thing the bill really does is to say that residue and products from these technologies “shall not be considered waste-derived products or require certification as waste-derived products.”

So if an unintended consequence shows up from advanced recycling, as it probably will, the companies doing the work aren’t responsible. It’ll be on you and me to live with or repair the damage, as always.

Until another Techno-Fix comes along.

David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog, as well as moderator of Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.

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