June 16, 2021

Precycling is still the Answer.


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Did you know there are five, count them, garbage patches in the ocean?

I only knew about the one called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP) that lies between California and Hawaii.

The sad fact is, there are four more: one near Chile, one between the Caribbean and northwest Africa, one between southern Brazil and southern Africa, and the one in the Indian Ocean between Madagascar and Australia.

I knew that Boyan Slat has been working to clean up the GPGP. He created an array of floating barriers that catch and concentrate the floating debris. Then the plastic caught would be recycled into new products or oil.

You can visit this interactive website that shows where plastic originated before it began to sink or this site to track how ocean currents transport plastics and other materials.

Each year, industry produces more than 420 million tons of plastic globally. As you can imagine, that ends up in either a lot of waste or recycling. However, the recycling process isn’t easy or cheap. Recyclers have to sort different types of plastic, which can also be contaminated if some of the “compostable” plastic is accidentally included with the other plastics.

There have been some breakthroughs in the recycling process. One of which is for the “compostable” plastics. Scientists from the University of California have discovered a way to make these plastics break down more easily using only heat and water. This method allows the breakdown to occur within a few weeks.

Essentially, the scientists embedded polyester-eating enzymes in the plastic during the manufacturing process. The scientists also created a polymer wrapping that protects the enzymes until recycling the plastic. Then the plastic is placed in hot water, causing the removal of the polymer wrapping, and the enzymes begin their work breaking down the plastic.

It requires some time, so the plastic is still stable for short bouts of heated water. This means a polyester shirt would remain intact for washing periods or when someone sweats.

The benefit is this wipes out microplastics! The team discovered that up to 98 percent of this particular plastic debases into small molecules. This process also allows the “composting” to be cleaner. It’s only water.

But there’s still a problem. Scientists discovered that a lot of plastic ends up on the ocean floor. The estimate was 14 million tons in late 2020. Much of this is microplastics. These microplastics are detrimental to marine life because they look like food. They block digestive tracts, causing the sea animals to lose appetites, ultimately affecting feeding behavior, which is a nice way of saying they starve and die.

It’s still unclear if it ends up affecting humans who eat marine life, but that shouldn’t be the only reason to be concerned. We are the custodians of this planet. Let’s act like it.

What can we do?

The best answer to this question is “precycling,” meaning we reduce our plastic usage. We stop buying or using plastic materials and start using reusable items. Lower demand will ultimately lead to lower production.

Another option is to go out and clean up plastic in our area, whether that’s walking a trail, along the coastline, or cleaning up near the highways.

It may seem daunting, but every little bit helps. Do you have some ideas on how to reduce plastic waste?

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