Plastic. Hard plastic. Oozing plastic. Multi coloured plastic. Plastic
you put in your mouth.
Synthetic plastic fibres you wear. Space plastic.
Plastic you work with. Life saving medical plastic. Our planet is
abounding with this unique and fantastically handy petroleum product. As I
flitter through the endless number of web pages devoted to this new
fandangled invention I have come to realise there is no way anyone could
know everything about it.
So instead I focus my sight in the process of
recycling plastic and the S.T.E.E.P. issues related to it, and there are
The fleshy aura if imminent disaster always fills the room when the
subject of environmental awareness is brought up. Indeed the devastating
effects of plastic on the environment are news to nobody, but the issue
never ceases to carry with it a sense of urgency rivalling that of a heart
attack. Well, with me at least. While there has been a tremendous amount of
research and effort devoted to the betterment of plastics recycling it
remains in its infancy when compared to other materials. The problem with
plastics recycling is that it requires too much heat and energy making it
borderline cost ineffective which, in terms of economics and society, is a
For a plastic to be recycled it must be soft.
Oozing, almost. This
entails heating the material to a scorching 200* Celsius. The dollar signs
involved with this process are astronomically high due the amount of energy
needed. In addition to money, the heating process severely taxes the
strength of the microscopic polymer chains that make up the material.
Companies exploring the recycling market see this as a crippling blow to
the resale value of the material and overall profit of the process and that
‘scares ’em all away’. In terms of the environment, it can be debated that
the amount of energy and resources need to recycle plastic outweigh the
benefits of the process.
So where does all this leave us? It would not be feasible to remove
plastic from consumer’s shelves as it has integrated itself into almost
every aspect of our daily lives (I’m glad my shampoo bottles aren’t made of
glass). We must instead orient our gaze towards the creation of a plastic
which can be cost-effectively recycled. We must orient our gaze towards the
American scientists which have done just that.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researcher Anne Mayes and
colleagues believe they have found the answer to the high cost of recycling
with the creation of ‘polybutyl acetate’; a rigid yet soft mixture of
polystyrene. This plastic can be recycled at room temperature, requiring
only a pressure of 340 atm (the amount of pressure used in conventional
recycling) to be re-molded. Furthermore, polybutyl acetate does not lose
its strength after the recycling process with samples remaining as strong
as ever after 10 cycles.
If this new material is proved on the industrial scale it will
significantly reduce the amount of disposed plastic, which can take decades
to biodegrade. While MIT researchers are not hoping this will replace
plastic (meaning that it will have to be sorted by hand for recycling),
they are hoping it will be a large substitute. Indeed the future is a
little brighter for our petroleum based friend and for the planet the
houses the beings who created it. .