Most journalists, including me, love uplifting stories about how science can solve difficult problems.
For plastics, there's a deep well of these kinds of stories. I'm sure you've seen them: Using a flotilla of pilotless plastic booms to clean up marine debris. Harnessing enzymes, worms, fungi, jellyfish or bacteria to eat plastic waste. Machines that convert hard-to-recycle plastics into diesel fuel or other useful chemicals. Making plastic from shrimp shells, mushrooms or seaweed.
If you're like me, you have family and friends who email you stories like this because they know you're interested in plastics. Or they post links to the stories on social media. Maybe you even share them yourself. Admit it, you want to share good news about plastics. It's not something to be embarrassed about.
In the popular press, these types of stories are often told in the context of a major problem involving plastics that needs a solution. Marine debris and litter are the most popular these days, followed closely by concerns about chemicals found in some conventional plastics.
The narrative can be comforting to readers. Here's a nonplastics specific example: In the back of my head, every time I see a story about climate change, I recall a story that I read years ago about a proposal to pump seawater into the atmosphere to cool the earth.
So, I think, we don't have to worry about climate change, right? Because any day now, the giant ocean pumps will save the earth.
Well, it hasn't happened yet. But that's not the case for plastics. Some of the scientific solutions that I mentioned are starting to get funding. Case in point: We've had coverage the past few weeks about the Ocean Cleanup, headed by 24-year-old Boyan Slat. I was skeptical when his plan, to deploy booms to collect marine debris, was first floated a few years ago. But now it's a reality, and soon we'll know if it really works.
Another example is our story this week about Pyrowave Inc.'s Catalytic Microwave Depolymerization technology, used to break down waste plastics into monomers. We've been writing about the technology for a while, and now it's being commercialized.
I think we're seeing real funding go to projects like this now because many leaders in plastics are convinced that there are real problems out there and the industry needs to step up and find solutions.
It would be great if one of these new technologies really did hit a home run and solve a serious problem. Plastics are critically important, obviously, but so are human health and the earth's ecosystem.
Meanwhile, there are plenty of solutions that we already know will work. Container deposits, for example, would dramatically boost the industry's anemic recycling rate. Investing in a solid waste infrastructure would go a long way to solving the marine debris crisis, too.
The plastics industry is investing money and effort in new technological solutions to stubborn issues. That's great. But don't forget to promote the solutions that we already know will work.
Loepp is editor of Plastics News and author of the Plastics Blog. Follow him on Twitter @donloepp.