Updated: Apr 4
I came up with the most brilliant, inexpensive, and easy solution to ending the problem of post-consumer plastic pollution. The idea was so good I considered emailing all my friends and relatives.
But this set off alarms in my head because I’ve learned over time that there’s usually a reason why exceptionally promising ideas aren’t acted upon.
It didn’t take me more than a half-hour of casual Internet research to understand why we’re not recycling plastics like we wish we could. I learned more from that half-hour than I did from thousands of scolding TV and radio ads I've heard over the decades. Simply telling everyone to recycle plastic or they’re bad people is not right or fair if no one yet knows how the recycled plastic is to be used.
What’s the real problem?
The real problem is that most plastics aren’t recyclable. The few that can, can be recycled only once or twice before chemically breaking down and becoming unusable.
This is probably a surprise to most people because it isn’t what we’ve been hearing all our lives.
If you don’t believe me, read this article from NPR.
It amazes me how so many people who claim to want to help the world seem to be unable to explain their positions in a thoughtful and reasonable manner without casting blame and becoming emotionally charged.
Therefore, I’ll show them how it's done.
Where do plastics come from?
To get a better picture of the plastic-pollution problem, let’s back up and learn where plastics come from.
Plastics come from a low-cost byproduct of refining crude oil. In other words, whether we like plastics or not, we’re getting the raw material to make them anyway when crude oil is refined.
The figure below shows the major constituents obtained during the refinement of crude oil:
Notice the word naphtha. That's what gets turned into plastics. Another word unfamiliar to most people is bitumen. That's what gets turned into road asphalt. Thus, if we stopped refining crude oil, we would no longer have plastics or asphalt roads or anything else listed in the above image.
Let’s focus on naphtha for a moment and consider what we get from it:
If we stopped refining crude oil, then all the materials listed on the righthand side of the above figure would no longer exist unless they could be manufactured by some other means. Can you imagine a world without plastics, resins, fibers (polyesters), rubbers, solvents, coatings, dyes, and adhesives?
Does anyone really want to eliminate these materials from modern life?
And don't forget chewing gum. Most modern gums are made from polyisobutylene (and other plasticizers and materials), a colorless, gummy solid used to manufacture inner tubes. In case you're wondering, it's a petroleum compound that comes from crude oil.
No wonder I've never liked chewing gum.
So, what should we do with discarded plastics?
Here’s where we can spend weeks reading hundreds of articles on what to do with post-consumer plastics. The problem is complex and involves many varied steps, some of which are not yet known. We must enter the world of chemical and environmental engineering. Many companies and research centers are trying to learn what to do with discarded plastics. We should all applaud and support these efforts. This is a good problem to solve!
For example, researchers are looking into grinding up plastic and adding it to road asphalt, similar to how ground up tires are sometimes added to road asphalt.
But for the most part, we as a world don’t yet have a solution except for a minority of select plastics.
This is where all the TV, radio, and Internet speeches fall short. They skip the part about where the recycled plastic is to go.
The final state of naturally decayed plastic
If left on its own, the final state of decaying plastic (after many decades) is the stuff of horror movies. It eventually breaks down into a fine dust that is ingested by virtually all animal life. Thus, there is a certain amount of plastic dust in fish, whales, birds, and all manner of livestock.
Plastics buried by thoughtful, caring citizens over time emit toxic gasses. So, if you’re a good person and bury your discarded plastic in your backyard, your grandchildren and greatgrandchildren will breathe nasty fumes while playing out back with the family dog.
What can be done?
I have three suggestions. The good news is both ideas have no net cost. Meaning, they’re free!
All the energy and expense used to make movies, TV shows, and radio ads about recycling plastic should be redirected toward research on what to do with recycled plastic.
Donate used plastic items (flashlights, cups, toys, etc.) to a second-hand store instead of throwing them out.
Use less single-use plastic (plastic forks, plastic plates, plastic bags, etc.).
If we don’t use as much single-use plastic to begin with, we’ll have less plastic waste to deal with in the end. I’m not suggesting we don’t use plastic for TV’s, printers, heart monitor machines, or cell phones that are used for years. I’m referring to using less single-use plastic.
Purchase meats from your grocery store’s deli counter where they're wrapped in butcher paper.
Prepare larger batches of home-cooked foods made from fresh ingredients. This way you can have several days of lunches from the same home-cooked meal, all without using any plastic.
Purchase foods from stores that store product in large bins (that aren't wrapped in single-use plastic).
Ask for paper bags at the grocery store.
Don’t buy bottled water. If you don’t like tap water, purchase a home water filtration system. It will pay for itself over time because you won't have to buy bottled water.
Never purchase plastic eating utensils, plates, or cups. When going on picnics, use real plates and silverware from your kitchen. This will impress your friends because your picnics will be classier.
If you must purchase prepared foods, then when going down the aisles in your grocery store, choose products that aren’t enclosed in plastic. Excellent examples are pizzas, casseroles, fish, and ice cream.
Don’t forget that metal, glass, and paper containers are recyclable. Glass can be recycled thousands of times and it’s still just glass. The same goes for metal containers such as cans.
The best way to reduce post-consumer plastic waste
is to use less plastic to begin with.
We can’t completely avoid single-use plastic, but we can reduce our use of it by 50-75% without feeling any pain whatsoever.
And you get to eat more ice cream!
So long as you eat it with a metal spoon.