New Awareness of Energy – The Plastic Flood

Plastics

In this article I would like to discuss the plastic problem of our time. As already described in the last part of the series “petrol industry” we have been able to produce a large number of plastics that are indispensable in today’s life.

The careless handling of these substances, and the ignorance of their effects on our planet, and all life on it, will inevitably lead to a catastrophe, for the extent of our destructive action is inconceivable.

Plastic makes the world go round

Plastics are used today in all forms and product categories. The computer (a notebook) with which I am writing these lines, consists largely of it.

In general, electronics are a huge market for various synthetic materials. We also find them in household goods of all kinds, in the packaging industry, in building construction, in our means of transport (bus, car, train, airplane, ships etc), in medical equipment, toys, cosmetics, the textile industry, etc.

This is only a small (!) excerpt from the various applications of the numerous kinds of plastics available on the market. For further information on plastic I recommend this Greenpeace Link.

Around 240 million tonnes of these artificial substances are produced annually from oil.

This equals a plastic mountain of about 35 Cheops pyramids, which are released to the market every year.

These gigantic production volumes are joined by the fact that only a fraction of these quantities are recycled.

Exact figures do not yet exist, but the little information available suggests catastrophic recycling rates. For example, only 1% of the produced styrofoam is recycled!

The rubbish problem

According to the latest research findings, globally there are about 150 million tonnes of plastic waste in our seas.What is particularly fatal about this development, is the fact that synthetic materials, as the name implies, are not natural chemical compounds.

It is not possible for nature to decompose the accumulated amounts of these substances, and to feed them into the natural breakdown mechanisms. Some plastics, for example, need 500 or more years to disintegrate into their individual constituents.

In the seas, the plastics do not decompose, but undergo a kind of weathering and pulverization. The plastic is thus distributed more and more quickly, and so has fatal consequences for life in this important living space.

Our daily poison

Plastics are a cocktail of different substances. Among other things, bisphenol A, which is used as a softening agent, has been receiving attention. It has hormone-like properties which influence the metabolism, as well as the reproductive capacity of humans and animals.

Hormone-like substances are called “endocrine disruptors“. These findings are still so new that today a scientific dispute about their effects has flared up.

We are thus tipping millions of tons of substances into our environment – an action whos impact on us and nature we do not even have an exact idea of.

In the sea, we are partly dealing with gigantic streams of powdered plastic, which is exposed to temperature fluctuations, mechanical/chemical effects, and above all, UV light.

We have inadequate knowledge to assess what these chemical cocktail particles can do.

In the meantime, they have become part of the food chain unintentionally, because they are absorbed by micro-organisms such as plankton and krill as well as fish, aquatic mammals and birds. Larger animals, in particular, frequently confuse these remnants with food, and die an agonizing death, since the plastic blocks the digestive system.

Microplastics were also found in fish that ends up on our plates.

There is a certain irony in us eating our own garbage. For me, this is one of the best examples of “illiteracy” – that as a result of our “glass dome life” we are not even aware of one of the simplest laws of nature, the “cause-and-effect” principle.

According to recent calculations, the plastic mountain in the oceans will increase by 4 times the current volume by 2050. Thus, there would be more plastic in the sea, than there will be sea-dwellers. We are dealing with a potential global “killer”, which perhaps can no longer even be stopped.

Ways out of the plastic world

It will not suffice to dispense with conventional plastic. The situation is so dangerous that we have to look for ways to reduce the plastic already present in the oceans.

A first approach is the so-called “Ocean Cleanup Project“. This project makes use of the fortunate circumstance that microplastics is mostly located in the top 3 meters of the ocean’s depth. The particles can be trapped and sucked off by nets, kilometers in size, which are extremely finely meshed and therefore harmless to fish. The plastic thus obtained can then be removed from the seas and subjected to a recycling process.

Plastic as raw material – The pyrolysis

Since plastics are made from petroleum, a conversion back to oil is technically not a difficult undertaking. With oxygen removal and several hundred degrees Celsius, short-chain oils can be produced from the long-chain plastic molecules.

In Ireland e.g., there is a large plant producing diesel from plastic. Ironically, the fuel produced in this way is superior to the conventional diesel, since, as in the case of synthetic fuel production, the end material is purer by far.

The principle is so simple, that there could even be pyrolysis household appliances that are barely larger than 2-3 rice cookers.

The oil obtained in this way can, in turn, be used as starting material for other plastics, or as mentioned above, as propellants, although in this case the carbon footprint, of course, can only be negative. The plastic waste can also be shredded and molten for further processing into building materials.

Alternatives to plastic – bioplastics

Since, as already mentioned in earlier articles, crude oil is, or rather used to be, basically nothing but biomass, the production of biopolymers is just as possible from renewable sources.

The first generation of bioplastics is based on plant starch. It is used for things such as packaging materials, dishes, drinking bottles and shopping bags. Unfortunately, as in the case of first-generation biofuels, there is also the conflict between plastic and food production.

The second approaching generation of bioplastics is made from biomass. Here as well, as starting material e.g. leftovers from sewage treatment plants are in the developers’ focus. Researchers around the world are confident that in the future plastics from renewable biomass can be produced on a large scale.

Mercedes is currently working on a plastic replacement made from castor oil, which is e.g. used for car dashboards. Continental also works on car tires made of dandelion rubber, a virtually endlessly renewable raw material.

Algae plastic is another promising way to produce plastic from plants that are not in competition with food production.

No matter what biogenous origin these new plastics are produced from, one thing must be common to them: the problem-free return into the natural cycle of nature.

At this point, I would like to point out the film “Plastic Planet” by Werner Boote (some of which is slightly inaccurately researched, but still revealing the extent of the problem). “Arte”, as well, has dealt with the subject, in the documentary “Plastik – a long-term problem“.

In the next article, I would like to discuss new developments in the field of “renewable energies”, and show which principles of energy generation, some of them amazingly simple and all harmonious with nature, will hopefully soon be applied.

Translation into English: Serena Nebo

Credits

Image Title Author License
Plastics Plastics Thomas Kohler CC BY 2.0