The trouble with plastic isn’t what to do with it. We KNOW what to do with it.
We can make it thin (for eyeglass lenses), thinner (for food wrap) or thick (for walls or insulation). We can make it flexible (think fabric for sweatshirts and shorts) or stiff (for laptops or mobile phones). We can make it any color (or no color), any shape and use it to make, well, everything.
(Take a tour around the house to see these “building blocks of modern life” in action)
The trouble with plastic is what to do with it, when we’re done with it.
And it turns out, that some of the same qualities (strength, durability) that make plastic so useful, make it so challenging when we’re done with it. Throw it away, and it can just sit there…wherever there happens to be. And if “there” is the ocean floor or a city street or a park — that isn’t good.
What IS good though — is that we are learning there are almost as many uses for that used plastic, as when it’s brand new. And there is a lot of good news about re-using plastic, instead of tossing it.
Take the plastic bottle, for example. When we’re done with our water or juice or soda, we know now to drop that bottle in the recycling bin instead of the trash can. From there, we’ve been finding more and more ways to recycle and reuse that plastic:
- 12 of those bottles (along with a little chemistry and elbow grease), and you’ve got a new Ralph Lauren Earth Polo shirt.
- With 111 bottles, you can make a chair, a classic, made-in-America designed kitchen chair.
- 250 bottles, and you’ve got parts including the underbody, carpeting and seats for a Ford Escape (yes, they use other materials too).*
- Take 20,000 of those bottles — shred them — mix with asphalt, and you’ve got new, improved roads.**
- And if you’ve got 612,000 water bottles lying around — you can build a very cool house!
Because plastic can be reused (pretty much types of plastic can be — many of them already are; others, as we’ll see, we’re working on) — maybe it’s time we gave our plastic “trash” a new name — like “raw material.” When we’re done with anything made of plastic, what we’ve got in our hand — is the stuff to make something new.
But some plastics are tougher to recycle than those plastic bottles.
Potato chip bags, for instance, and juice pouches. So in a few cities around the country, Dow is trying something new: people recycle those plastics in a bag separate from their other recycling. That bag is picked up separately, and recycled separately (in this case, using high, high heat to turn that plastic into — fuel. Diesel that can run a car, a truck, a bus).
Meanwhile in Pennsylvania, one trash company is going a different direction. Its customers put their chip bags and grocery bags into the recycling with everything else. They’ve got new sorting machines that pull out those plastics, and they’ve got some local manufacturers lined up to turn that used plastic into things like new floor mats for cars.
Another approach: LyondellBasell is using its chemical expertise (it makes plastics along with other chemicals and some refining too) to tackle the problem of making recycled plastics that are the same high quality as the original (which means there are more uses for it). With a little laboratory magic, by next year, they plan to be turning old plastic into raw materials for 50,000 tons of good-as-new plastics like high-density polyethylene (which among other things, makes an excellent hard hat).