What are the plastics of tomorrow?

No fewer than 300 million tonnes of plastic are produced worldwide every year, around half of which will be discarded the very same year – a phenomenal waste on a global scale! Of course, all this plastic waste presents a serious risk to the environment. How will research and innovation enable us to reduce this pollution thanks to the plastics of the future?

Land pollution is dangerous both for the agricultural sector and for the land itself. Burying plastic underground merely exposes groundwater to this harmful waste. If groundwater is affected, this in turn affects a very large proportion of the drinking water system, thus putting all populations in danger.

The case of biodegradable plastics

In environmental terms, it is believed that these biodegradable plastics, which are more widely used to manufacture plastic carrier bags, are a very good idea. Indeed, the direct risk is less significant since the bag eventually disintegrates, but, as is the case with plant and food waste, this breakdown takes a number of years. By way of comparison, paper takes 2-5 months to disintegrate, chewing gum 5 years and a banana 1-3 years.

Plastic raises another concern. Whether they are made of carbon dioxide or monoxide (making it a carbon sink), or of corn, carrier bags should not be discarded, and if people think that they break down easily, this could become commonplace, causing the number of bags tossed into the environment to soar. Another important factor is that if this waste were to accidentally end up in landfill it would create harmful greenhouse gases.

An alternative solution: recycling plastic into diesel

Certain companies have been attempting for several years now to develop the fuel of tomorrow using materials such as plastic or, even more unbelievably, from CO2. Agilyx and Cynar PLC Green Fuel are two American companies that have recently invented alternative diesel production processes or ways of returning plastics to their original form.

The principle, where all of these companies are concerned, is the same every time, namely grinding the plastic down and heating it by pyrolysis at over 400°C. The plastic is converted into a gas, which is then converted into diesel. This process can produce 750 litres of fuel from a ton of waste. For more information on this environmental revolution you may like to watch the M6 documentary: Capital Terre. A team of French and Spanish researchers have even found a formula for converting CO2 waste into plastic. The principle here is slightly different and is based on a micro-algae culture, which, once concentrated and filtered, is converted into ‘natural petroleum’ following exposure to high pressures and high temperatures.

Although there are currently no standard practices for the recycling of plastic materials on the horizon, real progress has been made over recent years thanks to the research that has been carried out. We must continue to believe in the scientific advances made by researchers if we are to find more new solutions.

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Auteur : Jean-Philippe Admont