I'm starting to feel like the grouchy guy who yells at neighbor kids to get off his lawn.
Except in my case, I'm yelling at people who suggest half-baked solutions to plastics litter and marine debris.
Early this month, I wrote a blog post about the “edible” six-pack rings that have been getting a lot of attention in the news and social media. A brewery in Delray Beach, Fla., garnered tons of positive headlines, thanks largely to the images of sea turtles happily munching away on plastic rings, instead of becoming entangled in them.
Hold on a minute, I thought. Are they really good for the environment? And are they better than photodegradable six-pack rings that are already on the market?
When I see headlines crediting a product for “saving” marine life, or being “safe” for animals to eat, I'm skeptical.
So I asked Ramani Narayan, one of the world's top authorities on degradable plastics. Narayan is a professor of chemical and biochemical engineering at Michigan State University and a frequently quoted expert on topics involving degradability and packaging.
He wanted to know what's in the edible plastics. The stories say they're made from the husks and grist of brewers' barley. Narayan said he needs more information.
“Statements like ‘we've eaten it and survived' are naive and dangerous,” he said. “Just because the product is made from fermentation residues does not automatically confer biodegradability.”
Why chemical recycling?
I had a similar grumpy reaction to a flurry of coverage last week about a new technology for turning polyethylene into liquid fuel.
The research was published in the journal Science Advances. Scientists at the University of California at Irvine and the Shanghai Institute of Organic Chemistry at the Chinese Academy of Sciences worked together to develop a way to break down PE into useful oils and waxes.
The potential breakthrough is that this technology is potentially less expensive that existing chemical recycling methods like pyrolysis, which requires a lot of energy to break down polymers.
“In view of the large and still strongly increasing amount of produced plastics and the steadily dwindling global oil reserves, one promising solution to plastic wastes is to convert them into valuable liquid fuels or chemical feedstocks,” the authors wrote.
But is this really a solution to plastic waste? Yes, some PE ends up as litter, or in the ocean. But that's not because it can't be recycled. It's because people litter, or trash is mishandled and ends up in the environment.
Why spend any money turning PE to fuel when you could just burn PE? I know there's a reason people don't want to do that. But it's far more efficient than a chemical process that turns PE into liquid fuel, and then burns the fuel. What's the point?
Real problems, realistic solutions
I consider plastics litter and marine debris very serious problems. The plastics industry does too. So don't confuse my skepticism with either indifference or opposition to fixing these issues.
I'm afraid that it won't be productive if we pay too much attention to things like edible plastics, or chemical recycling or giant vacuum cleaners that filter plastics from seawater. We're risking giving the public a false sense that plastics waste issues have been magically solved.
There are real solutions to these problems. It's going to take a lot of education to change public attitudes about plastics, and both time and money to build a stronger and sustainable plastics recycling infrastructure.
And while there are thousands of committed activists working hard to make things better in their own communities, the plastics industry will have to pitch in and help people around the world to do the same.
The key is we need careful, scientifically vetted solutions.
OK, now, get off my lawn. And don't forget to pick up your plastic trash.
Loepp is Plastics News editor and author of “The Plastics Blog.” Follow him on Twitter @donloepp.