New discovery could solve the world’s ocean plastics problem
Thursday, May 16, 2019
A study recently published in Nature seems to suggest that there is "a significant increase in open ocean plastics in recent decades," going back nearly 60 years. The study was based off a 2015 investigation that estimated there were between 4.8 trillion and 12.7 trillion pieces of plastic entering the ocean every year. That’s a staggering amount of pollution entering the world’s waterways.
But the news gets worse. The pollution may amount to as much as a $2.5 trillion economic impact, negatively affecting "almost all marine ecosystem services," including fisheries, recreation and heritage.
However, there’s been a potential breakthrough by scientists at Berkeley Lab that may change everything we know about plastic and plastic waste. Published in Nature Chemistry, the Berkeley Lab researchers found a new way to assemble plastic elements and reuse them "into new materials of any color, shape or form."
Known as poly(diketoenamine), or PDK, the new creation is seen as a major breakthrough because the bonds PDK forms are able to be reversed via a simple acid bath, the researchers said. So, when reversed, the poly(diketoenamine)s, which "click" together from a variety of triketones and aromatic or aliphatic amines, yield "only water as a by-product," the researchers found.
"Recovered monomers can be re-manufactured into the same polymer formulation, without loss of performance, as well as other polymer formulations with differentiated properties. The ease with which poly(diketoenamine)s can be manufactured, used, recycled and re-used — without losing value — points to new directions in designing sustainable polymers with minimal environmental impact."
"Most plastics were never made to be recycled," said lead author Peter Christensen, a postdoctoral researcher at Berkeley Lab’s Molecular Foundry, in the statement. “But we have discovered a new way to assemble plastics that takes recycling into consideration from a molecular perspective.”
"Circular plastics and plastics upcycling are grand challenges," said Brett Helms, a staff scientist in Berkeley Lab’s Molecular Foundry, in the statement. "We’ve already seen the impact of plastic waste leaking into our aquatic ecosystems, and this trend is likely to be exacerbated by the increasing amounts of plastics being manufactured and the downstream pressure it places on our municipal recycling infrastructure."
Though PDK only exists in the lab currently (meaning products won't be available for purchase for some time), the researchers are nonetheless excited by what they've discovered and the potential positive impact it could have.
"With PDKs, the immutable bonds of conventional plastics are replaced with reversible bonds that allow the plastic to be recycled more effectively," Helms continued in his statement. "We’re interested in the chemistry that redirects plastic lifecycles from linear to circular."
The new plastic could be a major economic driver and be quite useful where there are currently no recycling capabilities. Plastics are produced from petroleum byproducts so are made up of molecules — polymers — that are composed of carbon-containing compounds known as monomers. “Once chemicals are added to the plastic for use and consumption, the monomers bind with the chemicals and make it difficult to be processed at recycling plants,” the researchers said.
Currently, as consumer-grade plastics are chopped up to make new products. The problem with current plastics is that it is often difficult to "predict which properties it will inherit from the original plastics," the researchers added.
This finding, though, would change and even eliminate those inconsistencies. The new discovery is being called "the Holy Grail of recycling:" a "circular" material that can be used repeatedly for any number of products, including adhesives, phone cases, computer cables and more.
Plastic recycling figures are trending down, making breakthroughs in recyclable plastic even more important. According to the latest publicly available data, only 9.1% of the plastic created in the U.S. in 2015 was recycled, down from 9.5% in 2014, according to the EPA.
"An ecosystem impact analysis demonstrates that there is global evidence of impact with medium to high frequency on all subjects, with a medium to high degree of irreversibility," the study's abstract reads, with the researchers adding that they looked at nearly 1,200 data points to come up with their conclusions.
At current rates, plastic is expected to outweigh all the fish in the sea by 2050. In the first decade of this century, more plastic was made than all the plastic in history up to the year 2000. Plastic is so durable that the EPA reports "every bit of plastic ever made still exists."
One of the most widely known patches of ocean trash is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It is a gyre of plastic debris in the north-central Pacific Ocean. It’s the largest accumulation of plastic in the world. The Center for Biological Diversity publishes a graph that shows just how big the trash patch is. For reference, it could cover about one-fifth of the United States’ total land mass.
Despite this and efforts by some countries around the world to reduce or stop the use of plastic altogether, the amount of plastic in the world's oceans is increasing and spreading across the planet.
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