I’m a beach lover. I find peace and joy when I visit the beach. The smell of the ocean and the sounds of the waves all bring me to a place of Zen. But nothing gets me angrier than seeing washed up plastic bags, lost children’s toys and balloons scattered all along my sandy path. It immediately saddens me that we as human beings can take this beautiful earth for granted and just let plastic garbage float away to sea with a blind eye. You’ve heard it in the news over and over again about sea animals ingesting plastic or getting tangled in a mess of plastic fishing line. Some are found washed ashore and it’s too late to save them.
Plastic takes about 450 years to degrade. So think about this; If you were born in 1970, your plastic diaper is still out there somewhere in a wasteland and has another 404 years to go before it has finally disintegrated. Multiply that by how many babies were born that year whose mothers used plastic diapers on them. So, with that being said, you can only imagine how much plastic garbage is out there just piling up and not going anywhere.
Unless something is done, the problem is only going to grow bigger and bigger each and every day. However, there is some good news out there about the world’s plastic garbage problem. I was happy to read recently that scientists have successfully turned plastic waste into fuel. While it’s not going to eradicate the problem completely, it’s a start and it will help. Here are some facts about plastics:
- Plastics are made from fossil fuels.
- Fossil fuels are a combination of hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen formed in long chains.
- Polyethylene (PE) is the most commonly used plastic worldwide and is a simple chain molecule (you still with me?)
- Polyethylene holds the largest volume of annual production of over 100 million tons worldwide.
- Polyethylene takes a very long time, (ok, almost forever) to degrade and needs a hefty chemical process for it to take on a shape or to react to anything.
Now I’m going to get a little nerdy and explain how the scientists were able to get the plastic back into a fuel.
Turning plastic back into fuel is quite a complex process. It doesn’t react to heat because the molecule chains (also known as polymers) break down sporadically into smaller variations leaving them with their own individual properties. Because scientists know all of this stuff, they figured out how to use chemicals to speed up the reaction process. They use an iridium-rich compound to remove the hydrogen atoms from the polyethylene. The carbon atoms that are left behind start to form a bond with one another leading them to be more reactive to chemicals than their single counterparts.
Secondly, a mixture of aluminum, oxygen, and rhenium pulls the polymer apart. Once this is done, the hydrogen atoms are now put back into fragmented polymers (also known as monomers) turning the object that was once a plastic bag or a bottle into a fuel. By playing with the amount of hydrogen and carbon in a hydrocarbon polymer, it can turn it into a different chemical without using a lot of heat to get the job done! Isn’t that so cool?
By altering the speed of the reaction, it allowed the scientists to turn the plastic into a liquid fuel or type of wax. This produces a clean, low-pollutant fuel as compared to other fossil fuels. Not tapping into fossil fuels will only be a help to the environment as the plastic is recycled into something we can use. Whether or not we can turn plastic into fuel, I would still like to see way less use of plastic in general. Grocery stores shouldn’t even offer plastic bags. I always have my reusable bags on hand whenever I shop. Let’s all just try to be more conscientious of our environment for ourselves, our children, and the future of the human race.