Existing Technology Can Solve Most Plastic Pollution Problems! (2023)

Existing Technology Can Solve Most Plastic Pollution Problems! (1)

Of the 8.7 billion tons of plastic waste produced between 1950 and 2021, only 11% has ever gone through recycling. In 2019 — the most recent year for which a breakdown is available — more than two-thirds of the 353 million tons of plastic waste produced was sent to landfill or incinerated, and 22% was mismanaged. That means it was left as uncollected litter, dumped in unregulated sites on land or in water, or burnt in the open. By 2060, rising plastic production will lead to a tripling of annual waste to more than one billion tons. Yet the future for plastic pollution doesn’t have to be on a downward trajectory. Existing technology and knowledge can correct the bulk of the plastic pollution problem.

“That was a pretty big surprise to us,” Winnie Lau, director of the Preventing Ocean Plastics project at the Pew Charitable Trusts in Washington, DC, described in Nature. “We weren’t sure if we could have such a huge impact without thinking about developing new materials or entirely new systems.”

Right now, logistics and costs, among other challenges, stand in the way of bringing in these measures to their maximum capacity. But the potential is there.

Existing Technology Can Solve Most Plastic Pollution Problems! (2)

Several countries have active examples of recycling. Whether policies such as these help to cut down on future plastic use is a crucial question. Have schemes to prod people to reduce plastic waste really worked to reduce the increasing amount of global plastics discarded annually?

Germany is a good example. Today, Germany recycles 70% of all waste produced, the most in the world. Two decades ago, Germany set up a simple scheme to reduce plastic waste. When people buy drinks in a disposable plastic bottle, they pay a small extra fee and get that fee returned to them by depositing the used bottle at a return center. 98% of returned bottles are recycled, and the country prides itself on the deposit scheme, as it stabilized what might have been a sharper fall in the use of reusable bottles.

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People seem to feel reassured that it is fine to buy drinks in plastic bottles that will be recycled, though, and they continue to purchase single-use plastics. So there’s little evidence that the intervention actually cuts Germany’s consumption of single-use plastics. What else can be done to lessen plastic consumption?

What are researchers doing to illuminate and solve the plastics pollution problem? Primarily, they’re:

  • assessing the best policies and ways to enforce them to reduce the production, use, and disposal of plastics
  • creating smart recycling schemes
  • designing new kinds of plastic altogether

Assessing the Best Policies on Plastics’ Reduction

Many efforts already exist to cut down on plastic waste:

  • bans or taxes on certain types of plastic, such as single-use bags and takeaway containers
  • regulations around how plastic waste can move across international borders
  • producer responsibility schemes so manufacturers collect and recycle their plastics-containing products or fund efforts to do so

Why haven’t these approaches worked?

A team of researchers at the Global Plastics Policy Center at the University of Portsmouth, UK conducted independent assessments of plastic waste management around the world. They determined that, in most cases, there was “virtually zero monitoring of policies.” One of the biggest difficulties in implementing policies to cut down on plastics entering the environment is a lack of data on where plastics are produced, used, and end up.

Then again, Antigua and Barbuda’s 2016 ban on selling or using plastic shopping bags points to a 15% decrease in the amount of plastic discarded in landfill in its first year. Why did it work?

(Video) Plastic pollution: is it really that bad?

  • a clear implementation plan
  • public support
  • early stakeholder engagement
  • enforcement — a $1100 fine and up to 6 months in prison

Antigua and Barbuda’s success points to assessing the performance of each policy against its own objectives, the extent to which each policy reduced plastic pollution regardless of the stated purpose of the policy, and the factors contributing to policy effectiveness.

Current Knowledge & Existing Technology Solutions

The potential of possible interventions starts by revisiting current knowledge and technologies, including producing fewer plastics, clamping down on the international export of plastic waste, replacing plastics with alternative materials such as paper, and scaling up the capacity of various recycling methods.

Mechanical recycling reacts to food and additives, which can reduce the length of the polymers and degrade the plastic’s properties. That means its ability to be processed into new materials is compromised. Such downcycling can eventually render plastics unrecyclable. But breaking down plastics with enzymes can split polymers into their building blocks, or monomers, which can then be used to build plastics with the same properties as the starting material.

This isn’t new thinking — the first reports of enzymes that could degrade plastics date back at least 3 decades.

Closed-loop recycling is the goal — nearly endless recycling. A French company called Carbios is testing a technology that it says will form the basis for the world’s first enzymatic recycling plant, which will use genetically modified enzymes to break down a common plastic called polyethylene terephthalate (PET). The goal is for enzymes to overcome some of the shortcomings of mechanical recycling. The process involves sorting and separating plastics, which are a mixture of different kinds of polymers (long molecular chains); then washing them, and finally grinding or melting them down to produce new plastics.

In addition to PET, which is used in fabrics and packaging, some of the other commonly used plastics that can be recycled in this way include polypropylene (PP), used in packaging and construction, and polyethylene (PE) — a polymer that can be manufactured at varying densities and so is found in a wide range of products, from shopping bags and folding chairs to surgical implants.

(Video) Why the Plastic Pollution Problem Is So Much Worse Than You Think

Gregg Beckham, a chemical engineer at the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, demonstrated that combining biological and chemical catalysts could be a powerful technique for mixed plastics. The researchers used a two-step process, including a metal catalyst and an engineered soil bacterium, to degrade a blend of plastics — PET, high-density polyethylene (HDPE), a plastic commonly used in shampoo bottles and milk cartons, and polystyrene, which is used to make styrofoam — into chemicals that could be used to make new polymers.

Another technique sometimes referred to as chemical recycling is pyrolysis, in which mixed plastics are heated to extremely high temperatures in the absence of oxygen until they break down into components that can be used as fuel or for building new polymers. But this labelling is controversial. Critics question whether it can really be considered recycling — because it is often used to generate fuel — and have argued that it is an energy-intensive process that is little better than incineration. Despite these critiques, many large chemical companies are in the process of building pyrolysis plants around the world.

Existing Technologies, Adapted to Reduce Plastics Tomorrow

Could the ideal plastic replacement have a life cycle much like that of paper? It would be minimally modified from the source material, simple to recycle, and pose minimal potential for harm if it leaks into the environment.

Jeremy Luterbacher, a biochemical engineer at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL), Switzerland, reported a way to use chemicals known as aldehydes to turn inedible biological material, such as wood chips and the cobs of maize (corn), into a biodegradable polyester, called dimethylglyoxylate xylose, that he thinks could be this replacement material. Although the production process is currently proof of concept, it should be possible to make this polyester simply and in large amounts, Luterbacher says. Work remains to bring this approach to market. For instance, if dimethylglyoxylate xylose is to be used in food packaging, researchers will need to be sure that, as it degrades, any molecules produced won’t be harmful to health or have any other unintended effects, such as leaving a bad taste.

Currently, the two biggest categories of bioplastics, polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs) and polylactic acid (PLAs), are both bio-based and biodegradable; they are used in applications including food packaging, cutlery and textiles. Firms are investing billions of dollars into making bioplastics. But they comprise only an estimated 1% of the more than 400 million tons of plastics produced per year.

“The plastics pollution crisis is literally visible, and it’s hard not to be heartbroken when you see it in the natural environment, especially,” Beckham from the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory admits. “I do think that humankind has recognized this problem, and I am hopeful that we can solve this. But it will take monumental amounts of work and time.”

(Video) The smallest solution to one of our biggest problems - Tierney Thys & Christian Sardet

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(Video) What really happens to the plastic you throw away - Emma Bryce


Existing Technology Can Solve Most Plastic Pollution Problems!? ›

Instead of hanging onto existing plastic policies in a siloed approach, innovative measures to tackle the plastic problem are at hand that address systemic change and transitions towards sustainable solutions.

How can technology help with plastic pollution? ›

Satellite observation of ocean plastics

They are using satellite imaging and machine learning to help clean up and capture the 5 trillion pieces of plastic trash they have observed in the world's “ocean garbage patches.” They estimate that within 5 years they could collect 50% of the ocean's garbage.

What is the existing solution for plastic pollution? ›

Recycling helps keep plastics out of the ocean and reduces the amount of “new” plastic in circulation. If you need help finding a place to recycle plastic waste near you, check Earth911's recycling directory. It's also important to check with your local recycling center about the types of plastic they accept.

What is the new technology used for the management of plastic waste? ›

Another Technology solutions for plastic waste management is Chemical recycling. It helps in breaking the plastic down at a molecular level, therefore, enabling the plastics to be recycled into useful materials. Some plastics, like polyolefins — the material in a polythene bag.

What technology can be used to stop water pollution? ›

Precision irrigation, for example, not only saves water but also uses lower doses of fungicides, herbicides and pesticides – which in turn reduces water pollution.

How technology can reduce the amount of plastic in the ocean? ›

Filtering our water using reverse osmosis (RO) filters on taps can reduce the amount of microplastics we ingest and that escape into the environment. Trash travels from streets to aquatic ecosystems via storm drains.

How to solve the problem of plastic pollution essay? ›

We must use alternatives like cloth bags and paper bags instead of plastic bags. If we are purchasing plastic, we must reuse it. We must avoid drinking bottled water which contributes largely to plastic pollution. The government must put a plastic ban on the use of plastic.

What chemical solutions are there to solve the plastic usage problem? ›

To solve the plastics recycling conundrum, chemical engineers are investigating several approaches for recycling waste plastics, including pyrolysis and gasification. Pyrolysis and catalytic pyrolysis use high temperatures and inert atmospheres to break down material into more basic molecules.

What is the best plastic recycling technology? ›

Currently, the dominant technology for plastic recycling is mechanical recycling, which uses physical processes—such as sorting, grinding, washing, separating, drying, and re-granulating—to recover plastics that can be substituted for virgin, or new, plastics.

What technology is used to make plastic? ›

Injection molding is used to manufacture a wide range of plastic products, from automotive parts to medical devices. Plastic manufacturers are also adopting new technologies such as robotics, automation, and artificial intelligence (AI) to streamline their production processes.

What are the latest advancements in technology that can help prevent pollution? ›

Air Pollution Solutions: 6 Pieces of Technology That Are Clearing Our Skies
  • Multi-Pollutant Monitoring Devices.
  • Catalytic Converters.
  • Scrubbers.
  • Chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) and Hydrochlorofluorocarbon (HCFC) Substitutes.
  • Low-Emitting Stoves and Heaters.
  • VOC-Free Consumer Products and Building Materials.
Jan 5, 2021

How can technology help save the environment? ›

More people using digital devices for communicating and storing information means that there is less reliance on paper, which reduces deforestation. Since trees are an important source of oxygen and also absorb carbon dioxide, this further reduces climate change.

How can we save waste water by modern technology? ›

Here's how:
  1. Shower Regulators.
  2. Faucet Aerators.
  3. Toilet Tank Fill Cycle Diverters.
  4. Outdoor Irrigation Controls and Rain Sensors.
  5. Soil Moisture Sensors.
  6. Sprinkler Heads.
  7. Toilet Leak Prevention Device.
  8. Leak Detection System.
Mar 15, 2022

Can current technology support oceanic plastic pollution prevention and removal? ›

Technology can be used to target hotspots of marine plastic pollution. The Inventory is a tool to identify plastic pollution prevention and cleanup technologies. Fifty-two inventions focus on preventing plastic leakage or collecting marine plastics. Technology alone cannot solve the plastics pollution issue.

What is a better solution for plastic? ›

Natural fiber cloth

Natural cloth can replace plastic bags. Sustainable clothing made from organic cotton, wool, hemp, or bamboo won't shed plastic fibers when washed. Felted or recycled wool is a versatile, safe, and compostable material for children's toys, household containers, and more.

How has technology improved recycling? ›

IoT-enabled waste management and recycling significantly reduce the inefficiencies in waste logistics. From fill-level sensors to smart bins and material quality assessing sensors, the recycling industry is leveraging the internet of waste to streamline operations.

Which is the best method of managing plastic waste? ›

Recycling. Recycling refers to the waste management method which collects waste materials and converts them into raw materials that can be reused to form other valuable products.

What is the most popular plastic waste management method in the US? ›

The majority of U.S. plastic waste is landfilled, with between 32 and 43 million tons sent to landfill sites in 2021. This accounted for more than 80 percent of plastic waste management that year.

Why is plastic technology important? ›

They are used tremendously for the production of usual as well as specific products. Plastic technology is a specialized branch of study which includes the study of diverse types of chemicals that exhibits plasticity. It also involves the study of several methods in which plastics can be utilized for use in human life.

What is advanced plastic recycling? ›

What Is Advanced Recycling? Advanced recycling encompasses any technology that converts plastics into a purified form or a feedstock that can be used in the production of new polymers, monomers, intermediates, or other materials.

What is the new material or techniques to replace plastic? ›

Cellulose: derived from wood pulp, it is biodegradable and can be used as a substitute for plastic in packaging, food containers, and other products. Paper-based packaging: made from paper and other natural materials, it can replace plastic in a wide range of applications, from food packaging to shipping boxes.

What is the biggest plastic problem? ›

Plastic pollution can alter habitats and natural processes, reducing ecosystems' ability to adapt to climate change, directly affecting millions of people's livelihoods, food production capabilities and social well-being.

What are the 4 main plastic polluters? ›

The letter coordinated by environmental not-for-profit City to Sea, calls on the 5 biggest plastic polluters; Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestle, Unilever, and Procter & Gamble to tackle their plastic pollution impact by switching from single-use to affordable and accessible refillable and reusable packaging.

Is plastic a technological advancement? ›

The use of plastics in medical devices and procedures led to advancements in medicine and widespread improvements in human health. Plastics also made possible the technological revolution that created cell phones and other high-powered computers.

What are the uses of plastic in modern technology? ›

Plastic is used across almost every sector, including to produce packaging, in building and construction, in textiles, consumer products, transportation, electrical and electronics and industrial machinery.

Where is plastic used in technology? ›

Advancements and innovation in automotive, aerospace, medical, electronics, computer and other consumer products rely on plastics for their remarkable qualities.


1. Most Ocean Plastic Flows From Rivers. Can Giant Trash Barriers Stop It? | World Wide Waste
(Insider Business)
2. Can technology solve the plastic waste problem?
(CGTN Europe)
3. How can we solve our plastic pollution problem?
(World Wildlife Fund)
4. Single-Use Plastics Challenge | An open invitation to help reduce plastic waste
5. Solving Plastic Ep. 1 | What if a solution to the plastic crisis is closer than we think?
(The Story of Stuff Project)
6. The 7 BEST Technologies to Remove Microplastics and Plastics from the Ocean and the Environment
(Imari Walker)
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