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New plant-based plastics can be chemically recycled with near-perfect efficiency (academictimes.com)
428 points by ColinWright 16 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 265 comments

Plastic recycling seems heavily motivated by emotion and virtue signaling.

In reality, only about 5% of our crude oil use goes towards plastic.

If we rolled out EVs, and then just burned all the plastic trash (using waste-to-energy plants), we would still be far ahead.

The biggest challenges with plastics are hormone disruption, and microplastics (particularly in the 3rd world without sufficient landfill or W2E infrastructure or societal environmental concern). If these new plastics are less molecularly stable, these issues may actually be worsened.

I believe plastic recycling is not motivated by oil use primarily. I believe it is motivated by trash accumulation in oceans and the food chain (microplastics). There are a ton of areas of the world where plastic just piles up.

The countries which are the most preoccupied with recycling plastics, such as the US, are also the least likely to throw they trash into the ocean.

Plastic bags do no harm buried in the landfill, and we’re not running out of land.

I see plastic bags on the beach. I walk along the creeks nearby, and I see plastic bags and plastic garbage. I go for a hike in the sierras, and I find plastic garbage.

I bike along the roads in town, and I see plastic bags in the gutter. I look down the incline beside the road and there are plastic bags in the trees.

Is the USA as bad as Morocco? No. Is plastic waste a problem? Yes.

Littering/dumping is a much different issue than disposing of your waste through the wrong channel. The problem you are describing isn't because people use the garbage instead of the recycling.

If we only had paper bags and such, littering wouldn't be a problem. Single use plastics of any kind need to be banned universally. Pseudo multiple use plastic such as bags needs to be taxed like alcohol and tobacco, through the roof, until alternatives become economically viable.

How much does a plastic bag cost where you are? Here in Sweden there's a tax on it and a single bag can cost 7 SEK (USD 0.85).

It's still too low.

A plastic bag can be quite sturdy, it can be transparent so you can easily see what's inside, it's light, it folds well, is resistant to humidity, etc.

If you'd give a plastic bag to someone from the 18th century they'd cherish it.

We need to make it so the average person actually cares about buying a bag.

Something like €2 with a return value of €1. Or anything that makes you treat it like you'd treat, say, a good tennis ball. You wouldn't just throw those away willy-nilly.

And we need to ban the low grade ones completely.

>If you'd give a plastic bag to someone from the 18th century they'd cherish it.

Something very similar is happening in north korea.


Yes well here in Spain bags are almost automatically handed out. And the cashier is personally offended if you say you don't need the bag.

We would also have torn handles, pants-staining leaks, groceries spilled across the parking lot, double and triple bagging, and so on. In fact we already have all of these problems thanks to the ham-fisted paper bag laws.

I would be more amenable to the idea if they made a bag that does not get torn (e.g. armor the paper with cotton or bamboo thread), and is leak-resistant (e.g. waxed), but that somehow takes the back seat.

Well, to your paragraph: oh, the humanity! Will someone think of petty conveniences?!?

You do know that we're creating country sized plastic patches in the middle of the Pacific, microplastics are everywhere and we're eating them, they're slowly changing us in ways we don't even understand, etc, etc?

The amount of plastic bags strewn across the environment in Morocco has drastically declined since new laws against them. There is still progress to be made, but the result has made me a supporter of plastic bag bans.

Multiply that by 100 truckloads per bag, and you have what goes into the dump. This blow-away trash is unsightly, but addressing it first is kind of the definition of virtue signaling. We end up at "If I don't see the problem, I can pretend it doesn't exist"?

Where do you live? In the Pacific Northwest I see nothing of the sort, the only nuisance is aluminum beer cans.

Plastic has found its way into water everywhere on Earth [1] and they don't degrade for centuries. Instead of making people recycle, why not tax the externalities upstream and nudge corporations into using biodegradeable materials?

[1] https://qz.com/1299485/antarcticas-waters-now-contain-plasti...

I always struggle with these answers because while the upstream taxing does seem like the “perfect” answer in a model, it has a spotty track record and future. When prices are artificially inflated, and politicians get elected by decreasing drag on your quality of life, a variety of reasonings get used to evade responsible costing as much as possible and to repurpose the proceeds for the initiative of the month. Hence why this nation is 27 trillion dollars in debt. It’s all to sustain an unsustainable way of life. Living off the principle, or indeed future debt, is so imperative to our lifestyle today (and our glide path to retirement and death) that it’s hard to make such burden sharing plans with a straight face. No American generation wants to be the first one to take it on the nose, especially when one of this country’s raisons d'être is to ensure our kids live better than their parents. This country (at least) needs a serious come-to-Jesus moment about consumerism and realistic expectations for sustainability. And yeah, I’m the guy telling you to cut down your drinking while holding a bottle of JD in hand.

You’re making some big assumptions: not intentionally dumping into the ocean doesn’t mean that they don’t end up there, and there are other places than the ocean of concern. Where I live in the DC area, plastic bags were about a third of the trash found in rivers, storm drains, etc. and in addition to impact on animals that caused problems for all kinds water processing facilities due to clogs. After a bag tax was passed, that sharply reduced the number of bags which ended up in the local rivers.

That's good to know. Do you have a source handy?

Are we really supposed to be thinking of all currently available land as being flexibly provisioned for landfills.

A 1x1x1 km landfill (they are actually holes in the ground) can contain the entire waste of the US for three years. How many of those can we hide in the western US without anyone ever noticing? Howa bout a 100x100 km patch, that will hold 30,000 years worth of trash. Meanwhile we can focus our energy on the only problem that really matter - the climate problem.

It seems more ethical to bury our trash in our own backyard than bury in a poor country’s backyard or chuck it in the ocean. In the US we definitely have an out-of-site/out-of-mind problem where “recycling” can often really be “another guy’s landfill (e.g. China)”. We value not trashing our own environs with scant recognition that in terms of the global impact of our consumption, it doesn’t matter who’s landfill it goes in. But we’re the same way with strip mining.

Why not? You can still live on top of a landfill. Is it better that we live on top of some ecologically inactive rocks instead?

I don't believe you can live on top of a landfill; it's too toxic. In fact I don't think you can even build housing on the site of a former landfill.

Airports and golf courses, on the other hand.. many uses for surface area besides living. I don’t know (truly) if the issue is really toxicity (in a well designed, reclamated landfill) or the simple fact that city services like sewer, water, gas, electric were never under-grounded there by design. You’d think settlement would be a cause for concern too, but I’d also think they have that solved if airports are made atop them.

Clearly you've never heard of Foster City!


That's "landfill" in the sense of raising the ground level, not in the sense of "dumping trash", which is what we're talking about.

We are running out of land. I don't disagree with your point that landfill space isn't "a problem." But if you zoom out and look at inefficient land use more generally (like fields for feed corn), you find that there is for all intents and purposes no nature left in many of the places we occupy.

If we are fine with Cemeteries in extremely valuable land in major city centers, I’m fine with a square mile landfill in Oklahoma.

Cemeteries are also an incredibly inefficient use of space.

I’m not fine with either.

Burn it all, she said!

Ever look at satellite images of coastal cities, such as LA or the greater NYC region? Turn off all map and road labels so it’s just a view of land use and cities just look like a giant concrete mass sprawling hundreds of miles. Now view over Nevada or other major flatland, desolate regions. 2x2 miles of landfill wouldn’t even be visible from the same altitude view. I believe ground water and aquifers are near non-existent in many western areas too so we wouldn’t have to fret about ground water contamination.

A landfill 1x1x1 km can contain the entire waste the US produces in 3 years. A small patch of land 100x100 km has enough space to keep trash for 30,000 years.


I'm not disputing that landfills aren't really a big deal, I'm disputing the claim that we aren't running out of space.

Mm, you’re running out of coastal land in temperate areas. That’s an entirely different problem. I wonder how the carbon footprint of taking trash to a Nevada desert to be buried compares to shipping it to SE Asia. On the surface (sorry) it seems the former would be more efficient and more ethical. Don’t know the numbers tho.

Developed countries outsource plasti garbage handling to other less developed nations that are happy to take care of it for a fee.

“Take care of it for free” == put it in a hole in their ground because for the developed world, its “outta site, outta mind”. Pretty stunning ethical blind spot we all have, really. At best, it’s a case of wishful thinking, on behalf of developed-world consumers, that once it’s in the bin something responsible is being done with it.

Until they realize that handling plastic garbage becomes a noticeable health problem and health insurances are no longer willing to pay for this externality.

I don't think that happens anymore?

Assuming that we can keep burying it forever is not a healthy attitude.

People used to assume that dumping sewage in the streets was just fine, but it led to cholera outbreaks [1]. There was no push to change that until it became a major problem and something had to be done. Sure, we can assume burying plastic will be a solution forever. But is it not better to avoid risking the event where it suddenly is a problem, and try and mitigate it now?

(Personally, I think so, but it is one of things that will be forever debatable.)

[1] http://www.hubhistory.com/episodes/boston-in-the-time-of-cho...

> Assuming that we can keep burying it forever is not a healthy attitude.

Yes it is. Just because some decision made in the past is wrong doesn't mean a different decision made in the present is also wrong. There is no harm to landfill, and we know it quite well by now.

It isn’t about being right or wrong. It is about sustainability and foresight. Yes, landfill works now. But the population is growing and eventually the land may need to be reclaimed. It is about recognizing that excess waste now may become a problem for future generations. It is about realizing that things could, you know, maybe be done better.

Dumping our trash in the ground is lazy and I just don't understand how anyone wants to defend it.

Well, I’ll have a go - first, most people have no idea where their trash goes and don’t worry about the problem that something has to be done with it. It just magically disappears because we (especially urban and suburban dwellers) are that abstracted from dealing with it.

The options are to make a pile of it, bury a pile of it (ocean or land), burn a pile of it, or eject a pile of it into space, while recycling what we can to reduce load on the aforementioned options (often far, far less than people imagine, btw).

So it’s not an issue of people desiring to put their dirty diapers in the ground for its own sake, but it being the better of several shittier options.

Fundamentally we all make too much trash. Each of us. But while that problem is being worked we still need to put it somewhere where it minimizes sanitation and environmental risk.

Far from being lazy, modern landfills are pretty meticulously engineered for surface reclamation in the developed world. You are probably acting more responsible by putting developed-world trash in a developed-world landfill than by shipping it across the ocean in container barges to the developing world, where often as not it just ends up in an unmanaged, seeping pile (assuming it makes it to and stays on land).

There’s a lot of wishful thinking about what to do with garbage (if “we” only..., “people” just need to...), but the best thing any of us as individuals can do is obsessively reuse finished materials without becoming hoarders, donate, and consume less (opt out of gratuitous packaging, don’t buy tchotchkes for decorations or gifts, buy things that will last for decades or generations, not seasons or years).

How’s that?

How would recycling help that? Throwing your trash in a trash can and taking it to a landfill would protect the ocean and food chain just as much as recycling it would.

Yeah, the great irony here is that recycling is what sends the trash to Asia were it's then tossed in the ocean.

Or at least, it used to. I think most plastic "recycling" is now going into local landfills.

> recycling is what sends the trash to Asia were it's then tossed in the ocean.

That isn't true (and was never true). Trash in Asia that ends up in the ocean is local trash.

Even back when Asia bought recycling from us there wasn't much trash in it, and even the trash that was there didn't end up in the ocean.

The stuff in the ocean is what litters the streets, and then goes in rivers during rain storms.

I tried explaining this a very eager green friend of mine and he would have none of it, he preferred blaming the USA on every bad thing going on in the world. Even Asian garbage being dumped in the ocean.

Depends on your local council. Recycling is a very local issue, and so it's something communities can and should tackle head on.

But you are right, the amount of councils sending recycling to landfill is very sad.

Why is it sad? Why does plastic need to be recycled?

Here are some reasons:





And it's only going to get worse unless we do something about it. Recycling is far worse than just taxing negative externalities and making the companies upstream use biodegradeable materials.

It would reduce the demand for landfill space?

We’re not running out of land tho.

That's not correct, plenty of countries don't have space for landfill and instead burn off trash in incinerators.

Let’s talk about the US then. Do you agree we’re not running out of land? If so, what is the point of recycling?

For plastic and glass, to make you feel better. Even if you're concerned about land use, they end up throwing away a lot of what goes into the recycling anyway. With glass especially, it is actually worse for the enviroment to reuse the glass because of the energy and water use associated with cleaning it. (There's also an argument to be made that we should continue to recycle plastic so the public is in the habit of sorting their trash if we ever come up with a way to do it efficiently)

For aluminum, recycling is incredibly important. It reduces the need for environmentally-destructive aluminum mining and energy intensive smelting.

For paper, recycling high quality paper like clean office paper and some cardboard reduces the demand for virgin wood pulp. Lower quality paper gets thrown away.

Also, shout-out to composting - food and yard scraps breaking down in a well aerated environment produces fewer greenhouse gasses than landfills.

It is amazing how much stuff you can compost. In my armchair quarterback opinion compost everything you can and recycle only metal.

If people are pissed about how much stuff they are throwing into the trash... go look at the incredible amount of packaging material that gets thrown out....

How many people have backyards to compost stuff and the time to do it? 25%?

Backyard composting piles aren't really the solution in my opinion (they're great if you can do them, but few people ever will). We need municipal compost pickup.

My city actually has this - we were all given bright green compost bins and instructions for composting. The amazing thing about municipal composting is that they can handle way more types of food scraps (e.g. bones and fruit pits) than backyard composting bins. They come pick it up every week just like the trash and recycling.

Unfortunately, it seems like I'm one of two or three people on my street who compost my food scraps every week. I think composting should really be easier for people to figure out than recycling - it's so simple to know what you should and should not compost (as it says on the front of every green bin, "If it grows, it goes").

Presumably you hope the US has a long and prosperous future beyond our generation, so it's a problem that will need to be solved at some point. The US consumes 70 million plastic water bottles a day, just disposable water bottles. Consider all other plastic waste, and consider that just because there is uninhabited land doesn't mean you can economically put rubbish in it.

I must admit I am surprised that anyone needs to justify the merits of recycling, so I'm curious what your outlook is. What makes you question the need for recycling?

There is enough landfill space effectively forever. It's really not a problem.

> What makes you question the need for recycling?

The environment makes me question it. Everything I've seen shows recycling anything except metal is bad for the environment. We only do it because it makes people "feel good".

The right thing to do with:

Metal: recycle it

Glass: bury it

Paper: bury it

Plastic: burn it

Everything else: bury it

If you look at the free market for recyclable materials, you will find that clean paper and especially clean cardboard are valuable feedstocks for paper/board processing, and should definitely be recycled.

You can compost food waste paper like paper towels, cardboard takeout boxes, etc... compost makes a lot of sense.

Why not turn organic waste into charcoal/carbon and bury that? It would be considered CO2 sequestration.

Why is glass recycling bad for the environment?

Because transporting it (it's heavy) and recycling it consumes more resources than making it fresh.

Additionally glass is harmless in the environment, and it's not something we can ever run out of.

So why do it?

Additionally, if you actually do want to recycle things, glass shards contaminate everything, making it much more difficult and expensive (i.e. consumes more resources) to do it.

What you're describing is mostly a failure of US commingled recycling system. Meanwhile most of EU countries successfully recycle about 90% of collected glass, collected in glass-only containers.

Making new glass can be an issue, as it typically uses sand, which is not very renewable and sand mining in many countries causes massive issues with flooding, droughts, sinking, black markets, even sand mafia!

No we should not landfill everything after a single use, or we will soon run out of reasonably accessible raw materials in suitable forms.

That's sand for concrete and beaches you are talking about. Sand for glass is not in short supply.

And no, we will never run out of it - the planet is made of it.

What is your point? If we are not running out of land should we start dumping plastic all over the place?

Modern landfill techniques are actually quite scientific and regulated. It's not as bad as the far left portrays. We do need to encourage more reusable things though. Plastic and aluminum can be almost 100% recycled. Plastic is much much lower. It will take more than one solution to fix the problem. I think composting is a pipe dream though unless someone figures out how to quickly do it on a very large scale. It's fine for home gardeners but the rest of us simply aren't going to do it.

Composting is only a pipe-dream for plastic because so few councils have a plastics composting process in place. No one was ever expected to compost PLA at home, and it's definitely just a feel-good exercise right now. Most PLA cups end up in landfill because they can't go to the normal recylcing plants.

What about biodegradable plastics? If regular plastics were made illegal or heavily taxed, wouldn't industry quickly come up with biodegradable alternatives?

Current biodegradable plastics are an industry smokescreen. The biodegradable portion is generally plant starch used as a binder. The “plastic” is just that, a very stable long lived micro/nano plastic. The big chunks break down, and the plastics continue to move through the environment and bioaccumulate.

The work towards truly biodegrade plastic is generally from the other end; identifying or making organisms that can break down the polymers themselves. Those don’t seem to be commercially viable, and in themselves won’t address environmental plastic pollution.

Which plastics are you refering to? In a PLA plastic for example (which is derived from lactic acid, derived from startch) there is no distinction between "binder" and "plastic", and there is no starch left in the resulting production.

Granted the biodegradability of many formulations is still far too long and requires unrealistic circumstances to happen in the wild (hot composting for example).

What about hemp or mushrooms?

We overuse plastic when paper would suffice. But then some worry about cutting down trees for paper. Hemp is a pretty good crop for the natural fibers needed in paper production (and many other things besides) and could replace trees as raw material source for paper.

It’s not easy to find good biodegradable alternatives for many types of plastics. See the example of Legos trying to replace their plastic with a more environmentally friendly version. https://www.wsj.com/articles/lego-struggles-to-find-a-plant-...

Seems weird to want biodegradable lego, when they’re highly reusable. I’ve never heard of a LEGO brick get so worn out that it had to be thrown away. Making them rot would just decrease their productive multi-generational lifespan.

... which would increase the ability of the market to absorb new LEGO(R) Bricks! Genius.

Everything has the potential to end up in the environment, so we have to consider the full cycle of the product. I think you might underestimate how much LEGO ends up in the bin.

Biodegrading plastic releases CO2, landfill-buried plastic does not.

Apart from that, what problem are you trying to solve with this innovation?

The problem with plastic is not the CO2, but the fact that we are producing more and more of it and it does not decompose so we now have it in forests, rivers, ocean, fish, drinking water, our bodies... this can't continue, it's not a sustainable path.

If the biodegradable plastic isn't made of oil but something we grow, then it would still be CO2 neutral.

So is petroleum-derived plastic buried in the landfill.

In fact bio-derived plastic buried in the landfill is carbon-negative and should be encourged!

> I believe it is motivated by trash accumulation in oceans and the food chain (microplastics). There are a ton of areas of the world where plastic just piles up.

But then how are we not at the same solution? Burn the plastic garbage (in place of coal or natural gas) to generate electricity.

Even better if they were plant-based plastics to begin with, because then it's renewable energy.

Off-topic, but sometimes I feel like we could harvest the plastic from the ocean, make plastic bricks, and build millions of houses.

Edit: Just to be clear, I’m not trying to say that this is a viable solution to anything, or that it’s a good use of resources based on our current methodologies. I’m more just trying to say that there’s so much raw material out there and that it’s better if it comes out of the ocean. Like, if suddenly we found a non-polluting method to perfectly separate out all the components, then a health-safe chemical mixture with those components that was solid and fireproof (and UV proof), there’s probably enough out there to do something significant with.

Bricks made of plastic weather into dust made of microplastic.

If microplastic turns out to be as serious a problem as has been suggested, with bioaccumulation and various sorts of damage, then the only solution is that all plastic without exception has to be thoroughly destroyed chemically or by burning as soon as it it isn't in use. And not put into use in ways that emit microplastic (as fibers, dust, or otherwise).

How about asphalt with plastics mixed into the underwater, but not the top layer?

Deferring the problem. Roads get dug up and relaid, roads get abandoned, maybe a few years down the line, we won't be using roads. Mentally insert "Back to the Future 2" clip here. And so a few decades later, we return to the problem.

I forget where I read this but asphalt is perhaps the most recycled plastic out there. Asphalt can be ripped up and then remelted right back into place or moved somewhere else.

Right! They even have road-paving machines that rip up the asphalt; add a bit more tar to replace the tar that seeped away; heat up the mixture and tumble it; lay it back down; and steamroll over it; all in one pass, all in a closed system with no dust escaping. (Ref: https://youtu.be/XKFaC5RYbEM)

Plus, since asphalt’s petroleum-tar binder is liquified during the working process, it would actually act as a solvent perfect for dissolving (certain) microplastics into. The microplastics wouldn’t merely be in mechanical mixture with the asphalt; they wouldn’t exist as distinct entities any more! They’d revert to being a petroleum fraction, in complex with the heavier petroleum fractions of the tar.

Most of the plastic can not be practically recovered from the ocean. It's more of a publicity stunt and cleaning hotspots.

We need to catch the plastics before they go into the environment, disintegrate, release their plasticizers and other toxins.

As has been said, best way to deal with all the plastic garbage that contains who-knows-what would probably be fuel, feedstock in refineries or similar.

There is a Kenyan Entrepreneur that is trying making bricks from excess and non-recyclable plastic: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-kenya-environment-recycli...

There have been attempts at harvesting plastic from the ocean. I remember one fairly recently that built a system using crowd funding but I don't think it was as successful as hoped. If they keep trying I have little doubt they'll make it work and possibly even turn a profit.


This company did a slight pivot to building autonomous collectors anchored in rivers which have the most plastic dumped into them leading to the ocean.

> [...] build millions of houses

... slowly leaching endocrine disruptors in the environment for generations to come.

This would also cut reproduction rates, which is not pleasant but is necessary to stop climate change.

There are more species than humans who need to reproduce.

That is a good point, maybe something like one-child policy better serve this need. Or possibly we must consider which is worse for animals, damage from climate change or damage from endocrine disruptor.

The answer is neither. Human energy use that causes climate harms can be replaced with renewables. Fuel can be replaced with batteries. In the longer term, the sun is absolutely pouring out energy, which largely goes to waste, and a Dyson swarm capturing a small fraction of that would satisfy the energy needs of a much larger population.

> Human energy use that causes climate harms can be replaced with renewables

No, it can't.

These are not solving land impact of human. We must have fewer human or live in smal space like in Tokyo and others city like it. Most human no have desire to do this. Batery take resources like lithium more than we have. Maybe Dyson swarm eating star energy output cause climate change of its own, fewer energy reaching earth surface. There is always impacts that human create. We only can for truly mitigate climate change with reducing human numbers. One action we take for to reduce impact create impact again in one other place. We swalow spider to catch fly and continue on each and again. One child policy is the forebest way for to accomplish.

> We only can for truly mitigate climate change with reducing human numbers.

Then you should welcome pandemic, genocide and war.

they are having some positive efect in long enough view. also they are having sufering first. best is not to have as much persons born.

> one-child policy better serve this need

Over my cold dead body [and I won't go without a fight.].

This more extreme usonian gun and freedom idea. If government say you have only one child you hav xr15 rifle not help. you people no can be trust with guns, ability to have as many children as wanted, others. you try use them to continue kill planet. you no have freedom to keep breeding kill other country with climate change. US having more children is externality it not pay. the US days of telling world around and doing what desire is over.

> If government say you have only one child you hav xr15 rifle not help

What are they gonna do, line me up and execute me and my family ? Kill my children ? Fortunately, Rights are still a thing, including the 2nd.

This is not in need. Fining confiscateing properties limiting from some good jobs all good consicuences. You have politician come to senses but slowly, you have democrat party finaly beat sense into your head on guns, sicund amendment be finaly rimoved. US no simply dictate to rest of world any more. If US continue cause climate change PRC enforce by army. US no more have army hegemony, have less man than PRC and bad technology than PRC. Your government enforce or we enforce, this is choice you for to make.

We will meet on the battlefield in the looming civil war, then.

It is not necessary. Malthus was wrong. You'll notice this position was popular among boomer environmentalists, which is why it was parodied just recently by 70s comic villain Thanos.

The birth rate everywhere outside Africa has already collapsed, anyway. It's probably too low.

Malthus wasn't wrong in a sense that /if/ there's geometric population growth, there /will/ come a point where a die-off of said population is inevitable.

Funny thing is that Malthus already recognized the effects that artificial birth control can have on the reproductive rate and was worried about that - I don't the the citation at hand though.

I agree that the birth rate outside Sub-Saharan Africa is probably too low and I think that this will become an issue, probably first in China, then the EU and finally in the USA.

Well, Malthus was right in terms of history, he just made one of the worst future predictions ever - he wrote his theory about human population crises right when it stopped being true.

I think we are seeing people having fewer children because they're depressed about the world/future expectations, of course, but that's not quite the same thing.

Your edit is where the problem is. Sure there is a lot of plastic in the ocean, but the ocean is big as well. As a whole the size of the ocean cancels out your attempts to do any recovery. You end up using more energy to power the filters (which are typically on ships) than you would by taking the oil powering the filters and directly turning it into plastic.

Plastic in the ocean isn't an easy problem to solve with anything other than wait for it to degrade. Which isn't as bad as it sounds because plastic doesn't do well in the sun, and we can easily make plastics that do worse and thus degrade faster.

You're assuming smaller plastic is better.

You should probably stop assuming that.

I assume no such thing. Degrade is more than just smaller, though that does come first

Better to harvest the plastic from the ocean, and power the collection system with the plastic in a plasma gasifier. The slag can be disposed of in the ocean, as its chemically inert.

You also need to make it fireproof or use an outer layer of fireproof material.

Yeah, if you aren't careful plastic building materials have some grim failure modes, the cladding that burned Grenfell Tower was made of aluminum and polyethylene, which more or less acted like a candle.

I’ve edited my comment to clarify the subtext, but yes you’d definitely need to make it fireproof. Fiery liquid plastic is exceptionally unpleasant.

You certainly could, but you could also build houses out of stone and cement, like they used to do in the old days. Makes for very durable construction.

Or... we could not use so much plastic, and make actual bricks to build ‘millions of houses’.

Since you sound so excited, are you going to live in the first plastic house with your family?

I think suggestions like this are super demeaning. I often see them coming from privileged knowledge workers, who are eager to share ‘free ideas‘/psuedo-solutions as a sort of ‘charity’ for poor people (and people in the global south). They are also often strategies which somehow don’t seem to fit for their own life - and instead are for ‘others’ who are less well off.

In other words: tech solutionism.

As knowledge workers, let’s try to cut through our false consciousness and come up with some awesome systemic changes that kick butt.

Demeaning or proposing ‘charity’ was not my intent at all.

I’ve edited my comment to clarify the subtext, but to answer your question: if we could find a health-safe fire and UV-resistant plastic formula that made solid building materials out of the pollution in the ocean, I would definitely live in the first plastic house with my family. It could survive hundreds of years and have a lot of benefits.

You're reading a lot into that short parent comment. Maybe you should be a bit more generous in your interpretation of other people's words.

I remember a time when everything was paper bags. Groceries and retailers went with plastic because it was cheaper. But with plastic there was a hidden cost.

Now we're told we must pay a premium for recyclable plastic. Personally I'd rather pay a premium for paper because it's made from a renewable resource. Plus paper will decompose within two months in nature.

The only drawback I can find is that paper bags take more water to produce than plastic. Sitting in a Great Lakes state that problem doesn't bother me.

Also not everything can be paper. A coffee cup can never be fully paper, it needs a plastic lining and can thus never be recyclable. Not without it being extremely crappy. No food item can be enclosed in a fully paper enclosure and expected to have a shelf life.

And for all the Portlanders saving a plastic bag there's a Texan buying all their drinking water as pallets of disposable single use plastic bottles.

I think we should just take the japan route - use plastic, try your best to be judicious and then just incinerate it.

I'm not sure Japan is good at plastic use. Practically everything is wrapped in 3 different layers for style points.

Japan's electricity is also so coal-based that using Japanese factories is starting to violate US companies' clean energy rules.


> Also not everything can be paper. A coffee cup can never be fully paper, it needs a plastic lining and can thus never be recyclable

There are bioplatic liners for paper coffee cups that allow them to be fully compostable, though. I have sitting next to me one made from the World Centric brand that uses the "Ingeo PLA" for the liner, and I compost these cups in my backyard. I only use them when it's inconvenient to not use a regular mug.

Coffee cups should just be reusable. Forgotten to bring your reusable cup? Then tough, don't get a coffee (or drink it at the cafe).

The solution, bags-wise, is reusable bags. I carry around several of the convenient, pack-into-a-ball variety. They're plastic, but they'll last me many many uses. When they eventually wear out, they should probably be incinerated. But in the meantime, I'm using plastic's advantage, it's long life, in my favour - rather than having it haunt me as waste.

Cloth bags are even better. I can put them into the washing machine if they are dirty, they can be easily stored and so far (I have and use some of both types that are over 10 years old) none of them degraded.

Interesting link (even though they kinda fucked up their description, luckily the source is linked), thanks. I obviously will not, but then I can get neither the plastic nor the cloth bags anymore, only unbleached paper.

The newest of the two canvas shopping bags I use is over 10 years old, the other I inherited from my grandpa, that one may be older than I am.

Both are good sturdy canvas and can easily be patched and repaired by anyone with basic sewing skills, some thread and a scrap of additional fabric.

Between those two bags and a military surplus canvas shoulder bag, I can take care of 99% of my shopping on foot or by bicycle (baskets and panniers are wonderful inventions), and I haven't had to buy a plastic bag in years.

Single use bags are always stupid. You can get bags or boxes that can be used hundreds of times before they need to be replaced.



# Reuses needed to break-even with standard single-use plastic bag (LDPE;Low-density polyethylene)

Organic cotton - 20,000 reuses

Conventional cotton - 7,100 reuses

Composite - 870 reuses

Recycled PET - 84 reuses

Polypropylene, non-woven, recycled - 52 reuses

Polypropylene, woven, recycled - 45 reuses

Unbleached paper - 43 reuses

Bleached paper - 43 reuses

Biopolymer - 42 reuses

Polyester PET, recycled - 35 reuses



# Reuses needed to break-even with standard single-use plastic bag (LDPE;Low-density polyethylene)

Organic cotton - 20,000 reuses

Conventional cotton - 7,100 reuses

Composite - 870 reuses

Recycled PET - 84 reuses

Polypropylene, non-woven, recycled - 52 reuses

Polypropylene, woven, recycled - 45 reuses

Unbleached paper - 43 reuses

Bleached paper - 43 reuses

Biopolymer - 42 reuses

Polyester PET, recycled - 35 reuses

Paper bags also turn to mush and spill your groceries when wet.

Apparently you've never had a plastic bag break dumping your groceries on the ground. Try chasing rolling bottles of pop going under cars when it's below zero out. Never had that happen with a paper bag.

I've had both break. Plastic bags tear when overloaded or structurally unsound. Previously sound paper bags become structurally unsound when soaked, and it doesn't take much wet to soak them. (And unhelpfully, the things that could make a paper bag waterproof also make it non biodegradable).

I wish there were more charities focused on building proper waste management infrastructure in developing countries. People don't want to support landfills and incineration, so they would rather support "clever" methods of collecting plastic in the ocean instead, which often end up in landfills anyways.

Maybe I am just cynical, but I don't believe we will stop polluting the oceans in my life time, so remediation technology is a necessary place to focus.

Plastic disposal is a clear example of the failure of current economics.

It's clearly bad for the environment and has long term costs, but there basically isn't any way economics to calculate that or incent it to not be done.

So IMO, recycling is an exploratory exercise in seeing if we can socially engineer behavior that is "better". The cynic would say "it doesn't", but I could argue civilization is built on short term economic calculations and resulting social/behavioral engineering that makes that impossible.

If there was any way to know, I'd be fascinated to see if there are real measurements in the drop in altruism, either from the psychological conditioning of our society, or making altruistic people less able to procreate.

90% of ocean plastic comes from Asia and Africa:


We need to prohibit Western companies from packaging food and FMCG for the developing world in plastic - until both the disposal infrastructure and societal attitudes around pollution and environmental management change. Or, charge those polluters to build that infrastructure or change those attitudes.

Here are the biggest polluters:

CocaCola (USA)

PepsiCo (USA)

Nestle (Switzerland)

Unilever (UK)

Mondelez (USA)

Mars (USA)


Phillip Morris (USA)

Colgate-Palmolive (USA)

Perfetti van Melle (Italy)


I would suggest that a targeted protest and political lobbying campaign against the headquarters of those companies would be more effective than any individual effort to clean up plastic pollution.

That's only because we were sending plastics to them to 'reprocess', and when those countries banned it, we were dumping it there illegally:


My recycling is sorted on site at the county dump, with rejected stuff disposed of in the dump. No way are the bundles of material they sell being shipped to Asia for disposal, it doesn't make any sense at all.

That article is about the countries raising their standards for the sorted material they accept, not about the typical journey that Australian waste takes. Just think about what a non existent amount of material 100 tonnes is for a country of 25 million people. Millions of tons of waste a year just in NSW: https://www.smh.com.au/national/nsw/what-sydney-is-really-th...

Yes, 100 tonnes is nothing at this scale. The company I work for, a small-ish waste paper recycler, deals with about 15000 tonnes a month.

A lot of that plastic is shipped in from USA/EU.

Why would they buy plastic and throw it in the river? The US has plenty of landfill space, we aren't paying to ship plastic to Asia.

Bulk shipping to asia in particular is very cheap due to the volume of empty containers going in that direction. Not sure about other places.

Countries that recycle plastic have people pick out the good bits cheaply in hellish facilities, profit off selling the high grade recycling, the rest is "waste waste" to be gotten rid of somehow. Dumping it in the ocean is quite cheap.

The sorted plastic used to be a thing that you could mix with virgin plastic to get a cheaper product.

Since China's waste import bans, I believe it's actually more expensive than virgin plastic, partly because it costs more to produce now and partly because demand is driven by manufacturers who want to have a certain % recycled plastic in their product for marketing reasons.

The higher price incentivises other countries to import and process mixed plastic waste instead. They of course will also have to find a way to get rid of the not-useful portions of mixed plastic waste.

In the US, dumping stuff in the nearest landfill is pretty likely to be cheaper than dumping it in the ocean. Especially if the landfill is operating the recycling sort (the case here and many other smaller counties).

(This addresses your second paragraph; if they are selling the high grade and putting the rest in the landfill...)

The first reason it's hard to just landfill it is optics. Local government asked people to sort their trash, made a big deal about it. And it's a scandal when people find out of course it's just being buried with the rest of the stuff. Recyclers were able to do two things; a) play a shell game which diverts the waste in an opaque, hopefully deniable way and b) deal with the waste more cheaply than landfilling it. They did this by exporting it, and all the externalities.

I mean, your argument is good but I feel it's contradicted by reality in a sense; megatons of waste plastic were being sent to China before the import ban.

You have to pay to put stuff in landfill, whereas the recyclers were paying _you_ to take the waste.

I think you might also be surprised by the cost of landfill. Sure, there's plenty of space, but there's not as much government approved, environmentally audited space as you might want - that won't leach into the water table, has good geography, neighbours who won't NIMBY it, no rare frogs that live there etc. Obviously it all needs ISO 27000 management, union labour and regular safety and environmental audits.

Caring about none of the above is how Chinese waste entrepreneurs could take mixed plastic from 1/2 way around the world and make a profit out of it, instead of losing money putting it into the ground. Their margins are slim and they have to pay for landfill too (much less of course), so dumping it in the ocean or similar saves money unless they get caught.

(For what it's worth I do agree that putting it in the ground might be the best thing to do, i.e, cheapest considering all externalities, and local government should just be transparent about what actually happens to your recycling).

I lived in Nashville in the early aughts. They had recycling centers where there were bins with labels for every sort of plastic. Of course, the only people using these centers, people like myself and my wife, were people who were scrupulously rule-abiding and wanted to do their part for the environment. Everyone shlepped their recyclables across town to these centers and then carefully sorted everything, take great pains and time to do it. If you were there when the trucks came to pick up the stuff, they emptied all the bins into the same truck. I saw this happen. The recycling company charged the city to mix the recycling. Then they charged it to separate everything again at the recycling plant. This was not a secret. Still, the people such as myself who took the trouble to recycling as much as they could of their waste could not be convinced to throw everything into whichever (carefully labeled) bin and go home.

My point is that it is entirely plausible that people are paying extra to "recycle" their waste when this has no positive environmental consequence. I was one of the people separating my trash, knowing the trucks would come and mix and all and charge me for this "service". It wasn't "virtue signaling". It was desperation to feel that one wasn't doing so much harm plus a desire not to be seen as the one breaking the rules of the recycling center. I was trying to do the best I could in my circumstances and feel a little better about my actions. I no longer live in Nashville.

I've literally been in the local facility that sorts recycling, they do a good job of sorting clean stuff by type and throw everything else away, into the landfill where it is located. Should I not believe my lying eyes?

So someone pays to haul stuff away on trucks and I'm supposed to believe that they are dumping that stuff in the ocean for some reason. Or shipping it to China and then dumping it in the ocean.

The situation isn't binary.

Waste management is handled at the local government level, they tend to "do their own thing". If your local government is doing the right thing, good for them! It could be burnt, landfilled, exported, sorted and sent to a local processor or sorted and then exported.

Sorting is not a binary process either. You can sort to different contamination levels depending on what processors are willing to take.

Not all waste is the same; different kinds of waste are handled differently in different places.

Local conditions make a difference; how much do voters care about the environment really? How much unused space is nearby? Are you way inland or near a port? etc.

But we can zoom out a bit and look at the macro trends.

I thought this article was a good introduction to how things have changed: https://e360.yale.edu/features/piling-up-how-chinas-ban-on-i...

Hopefully in future we do see more local processing, and less "environmental law arbitrage" by waste export.

I think the best use would be not microparticle-shedding plastics made from fast growing plants, deposited in the ground as carbon sinks. Something degradable, but not in anaerobic conditions.

There definitely is a way to deal with this in economics: taxes. If you tax the companies making the plastics, the price will go up, and they have an incentive to do things differently.

Taxes are a crucial pillar of even a purely capitalist society, it’s just that they are not easy to implement politically.

LOL @ the downvotes. Not sure why, what orev said is true - taxing externalities is generally considered (at least by economists) the best way to manage the externality. Set the tax at a level that makes it cost prohibitive to use plastics and the market will find an alternative.

I read u/AtlasBarfed's point being that we don't have a proper way to put a price on the externalities.

To your point, onerously high taxes could largely remove plastics from the waste stream, mooting the need to determine the cost.

I'd like to go even further. Incentives and prizes and grants and whatever-it-takes to find alternatives. eg Bulk pills in plant-based baggies, instead of monthly oversized labeled bottles and caps.

Nudge the culture and expectations. Every little bit would help. Because better is better.

The onerously high taxes could help pay for the incentives, prizes, and grants.

Pigovian taxes are my favourite response to environmental damage.

In theory, everyone should be on board. The fiscal conservatives should want it, since negative externalities are a violation of the non-aggression principle, and taxes are the least intrusive way to encourage change, it's basically delegating the specifics of the change to the market. It is consistent with their principles to want it. It seems like the easiest way to potentially get the most people on board.

I also genuinely believe it's the best solution most of the time. The market is ingenious as long as prices accurately reflect costs and benefits.

> In reality, only about 5% of our crude oil use goes towards plastic.

This is such a dangerous take, and so popular.

If we want to fix climate change we need to get rid of emissions in all sectors (and yes, plastic does create emissions, both in the refinery process and later on landfills and in incinerators). It's not a reasonable strategy to only focus on the large and easy to fix emission sources.

Plastic is a hard to fix sector, and it's unfortunate that developments to decarbonize it have barely started.

> Only about 5%

Perhaps. But 5% of gazillions is still bazillions. Bazillions of non-biodegradable goods - many single use - adds up. Forever.

Presuming oil follows the same path as coal (i.e., demand collapses and price follows) then plastics will get even cheaper. If we don't find an alternative soon, it might never happen.

Do you have any source for the 5% stat? I don't mistrust you, but it would be nice to "see it with my own eyes" to be confident enough to use it in conversations with others.


"In Europe, it is estimated that between 4–6% of oil and gas is used for producing plastics."

- British Plastics Federation

It varies from country to country, and in the USA natural gas is the primary input instead of oil. Some gas or oil could be consumed by the plant, not actually ending up in the final product.

Thank you!

"Plastics production accounts for about 4 percent of global oil production. That’s according to figures for 2012, so now it may well be higher."


Thank you!

Have you never come across an area with heavy plastic pollution during your explorations? Seeing it makes me sad and motivates me to reduce my own plastic usage. I also actively pick up waste as part of my civic duty.

Having said that, plastic recycling is bullshit. You can't recycle plastic. You can recycle steel and glass. A can can be turned into a new can. But the plastic around meat will never be turned into a new plastic around meat. That's not recycling. Glass is even better as it can be reused. No need for expensive recycling. Plastic can't be recycled so it just needs to be reduced. There are so many easy ways to do this that don't take a genius to figure out. It's just a matter of forcing the supermarkets etc to care about it.

Besides all the other great points commenters have raised, I'd like to address this:

> If we rolled out EVs, and then just burned all the plastic trash (using waste-to-energy plants), we would still be far ahead.

Well yes. But... we're probably not going to just "rolled out EVs" so easily. Every step will most likely seem small, because it will be, because that's the only thing we can realistically, politically do. But that doesn't make it not worth doing.

We may as well say "if we just stopped using electricity we'd be way ahead". Not a good basis for comparison, and even if it were, it's still only like 20%-30% percent of oil use (off the top of my head), so even that won't unilaterally solve all problems.

I get your point, but no. This is the type of thinking that led to the stagnation of the auto industry.

Why not roll out EVs that easily? The most profitable case company is doing it.... why would anyone go anything else?

> I get your point, but no. This is the type of thinking that led to the stagnation of the auto industry.

I'm sorry, I don't follow. In what way?

> Why not roll out EVs that easily? The most profitable case company is doing it.... why would anyone go anything else?

I'm all in favor of rolling out EVs. I'm in favor of new technical innovations. I'm in favor of better regulations. In short, I'm in favor of doing many things at once to combat one of our biggest emergencies.

I think we should recycle plastic if we can, or better yet, switch to other materials that are easier to recycle. For example, glass bottles can just be sent back to the factory, washed and reused. This is already done for beer and wine AFAIK. It could be done for milk and every other kind of drinks as well.

However, if we fail to recycle plastic, isn't burying plastic in a landfill, in a way, a form of carbon capture? This is that. much less carbon going into the atmosphere. Again, I think we should avoid that if we can, but IMO, not all pollution is an equally serious problem. Reducing CO2 emissions is clearly the number one priority.

If by sent back you mean crushed then yeah sure bottles are reused. Oregon for example breaks the bottles when you return them to prevent fraud.

Thankfully that's not the case everywhere: https://www.thestar.com/life/food_wine/2013/06/28/the_averag...

That's horrible, if true. Do you have a source for that? A quick Google search didn't get me anywhere. At least here in Austria the glass bottles are actually cleaned and re-used.

There isn't really any systematic reuse of glass bottles in the U.S. The only such thing I've encountered is some very niche arrangements between boutique dairy companies and boutique grocery stores, where you can return your $10 quart bottle of milk for the bottle to be reused.

The co-op I frequent in Vermont provides milk in glass bottles from various dairies. The bottles have significant deposits, but the most is $2. You return the bottle. You get the deposit back. They clean and reuse the same bottle, as is shown by the accumulating scratches on the outsides of the bottles. The co-op is the main grocery store in town, so not "boutique" except insomuch as Vermont itself is boutique. But then "boutique" just means not typical. Your implication is that it means supported by bougie people living in a fantasy land. Most of US material culture is crap. This is not by necessity.

> boutique grocery stores, where you can return your $10 quart bottle of milk for the bottle to be reused.

You’re misrepresenting the price substantially – that’s 5 times what Whole Foods charges and while they’re upscale they’re more mainstream than boutique these days.

You're telling me I can buy a quart of milk in a reusable glass bottle for $2 at Whole Foods?

Yes: a half gallon is two quarts and that’s $4.


Yeah the machines around here you can hear them being crushed. Most are Tomra units. Oregon does recycle full bottles but I think that's only if you use the green bags and have them sort.


Found a video of the same machine, you can hear the bottle breaking https://youtu.be/1wwmqmxdlSw?t=27

Quick edit: Looks like Tomra does make machines that keep the bottles intact.

My mother used to say this happened with milk. They'd deliver it daily and collect the used bottles to be washed and reused.

This is still done today with some premium milk in the US - e.g. Strauss milk: https://www.strausfamilycreamery.com/simple-faqs/what-should...

Our family gets its milk direct from a farm this way in upstate NY.

It costs about 50% more, but the quality of the milk is unbelievable and unlike most supermarket milk, we’re paying the producer a sustainable rate that yields them a profit.

Overall in New York, 75% of remaining dairy farmers will be bankrupt in a year or two.

That’s what we’ve been doing during the pandemic in the DC area: it costs about the same as buying organic milk at Safeway to get glass bottles delivered from a local creamery, along with cheese, bread, etc.

AFAIK, you can still get daily milk delivery in rural Scotland. My grandparents certainly did through the mid-90s. Some homes even had a little door where the milkman could place the bottles straight into the kitchen.

You cannot win this argument.

One concerned citizen will point out that glass is heavier and supposedly uses more diesel to move around and requires more trucks to do so. Another concerned citizen will point out that more carbon is used in firing sand into glass. Still another will tell you that the warm water used to clean a used bottle will also produce carbon.

The only answer is to move next to a spring and drink the water with your hands, but some other person will be concerned that you are disrupting the spring’s ecology.

It's tradeoffs all around. We each get to decide where our personal responsibility begins and ends. As a society we negotiate together in choosing leaders to preserve our way of life.

As people become more educated their positions can change. We don't have to settle for one solution forever or give up just because there isn't absolute agreement.

I agree that there are always people whining, no matter which solution you might suggest (unfortunately). However, I'm invested in three companies that build electric trucks, and there are more and more renewables on the grid. Multiple companies are tackling the problem of energy storage as well. Change is happening.

? Oil being used to make plastics was never a problem.

Oil is not evil. It's the Co2 bit that's a problem.

The problem you missed was at least to some extent recycling: we can't reuse the material at all, and while theoretically burning is practical, we still don't separate everything and burning still leaves a byproduct that has to be buried.

I suggest the alternative is going to have to be something that truly disintegrates, i.e. more organic.

Oil on its own is still not great, because of the extraction methods that cause environmental harm, but it’s definitely better than the CO2-related issues from burning it.

Burying it as is makes it a carbon sink.

If we take plant, turn them to plastic that doesn't regards quickly, then bury them, we're sequestering that co2

Oil for plastic use just is not a CO2 issue, it has nothing to do with sequestration.

Oil for plastics is more akin to the use of any other natural resource in a product or good.

The above commenter indicated 'issues with extraction', well yes, but we have the same issues with extracting everything else. Also, frankly, most oil extraction is not very damaging directly - if we were only using oil for plastics, we'd probably only use the easiest to access oil, like from the Middle East where we pop a straw in the ground and that's it aside from refining.

Burned 'anything' that we put in landfills is actually better than raw garbage as it's considerably reduced and more dense - but it's still landfill.

We should strive for a solution that doesn't require landfill.

So? Peopel should start stopping research on plastic alternatives? Probably not right? I don't think you can translate their research to saving oil through ev cars.

And i think we should just do both. I'm able to advocate for less production of plastic and EV use and less driving around for nothing.

disposing of plastics isn't so simple. burning plastic for energy is ok for some plastics, but plastics that contain chlorides produce dangerous gases. we don't have cost effective ways to capture those gases. even if we addressed that issue, the economics of w2e are poorer than those of landfills.

Citation? I was told proper incineration can take care of that l.

Tou have to incinerate at a really high temperature to get rid of the chlorine.

All public incinerators in Japan burn wastes in such high temperature to handle the issue. Is it impossible all countries to use such incinerator?

Plastic consumption is still growing exponentially though while burning oil is declining.

EVs still heavily depend on non-recyclable batteries. A much better option would be to get biodiesel to a practical state. So whatever carbon your car releases will get trapped back into another portion of fuel.

Have you seen what lithium mining does to the earth? If you haven’t, I suggest you check it out. EV cars are not the answer.

How does it compare with other types of mining, such as coal mining, uranium mining, or the Alberta tar sands?

Good question. It may be hard to quantify. The only thing that's clear is you wouldn't want to physically live near any of those areas.

> The biggest challenges with plastics are hormone disruption, and microplastics (particularly in the 3rd world without sufficient landfill or W2E infrastructure or societal environmental concern).

Do we live on the same planet?

The biggest challenges with plastics is the proliferation of plastic pollution.


What they're based from isn't the problem, it's chemicals added to the base, such as chlorine compounds, that is the problem.

Please say more. My efforts to buy least processed cotton and wood pulp products have been largely unsuccessful. I don't need my toilet paper or t-shirts to be white.

Your concerns sound more related to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Optical_brightener than chlorinated plastics.

I suggest using a bidet/washlet, and a dry towel. Toilet paper isn’t truly necessary - to me.

As a particularly hirsute gentleman, I find it both cleaner and more comfortable. YMMV.

How are people still using toilet papers in developed countries? It still amazes me. I am from a developing country and it costs around $15 to fix a new bidet/handheld-shower to my existing pipe connection. There is the cost of water though. But then again. I am in a rainy area. Water crisis might never occur here. Plus all the waste is going to ground. So, not much to worry here. But seriously. Use bidets or at least handheld-showers

For some reason, products made of minimally treated hemp or linen are more widely available.

Look into wool. Expensive, but super comfy and likely not bleached. Given the higher price some of the brands make it a point to detail the environmental and animal welfare impact.

The diversity of responses in this thread as to what the real problem is is deeply alarming.

Apparently hn - presumably an educated crowd - can't even agree what the problem is let alone how to fix it.

It’s a complex problem for which solutions have many ramifications, so it’s perfectly normal to see different opinions. Personally, I enjoy the friendly and constructive discussion I have seen so far, and can say that I learned a few things.

The "real problem" is a futile entity to identify.

There are an awful lot of real problems.

I really like this technology. It's not going to fix the world. I like that the source is biological because it won't depend to the same extent on petrochemical supplies. I like that it is designed thoughtfully to have good mechanical properties while being nearly entirely recoverable. It's clever.

I don't understand the hate. It's a silver BB but it's at least cool tech.

"Mobile phone case made with 3D printing, using recycled plastic."

I do a lot of 3D printing and I always feel bad every time I have a bad print or design error and need to throw it in the trash. I really hope we can see some of these filaments on the market soon especially considering how popular 3D printing is becoming.

Agreed. If you print a dinosaur skull out of ABS, I wonder if the cast would survive longer than a real fossil.

That is a sombre thought.

PLA can be recycled with near perfect efficiency and is available today.

Also it's extremely biodegradable so throwing it out isn't the end of the world.

No, it's not. Despite what store pages love to tell you at every corner, PLA does not degrade by itself. It requires exposure to 60+ degrees Celsius for at least 6 months. Good luck building recycling plants handling this in an environmentally-friendly and economical way.

Don't throw out PLA, it's barely less problematic than other materials.

I've personally seen how PLA degrades in good compost in about three weeks (can go for less if you're more active). True, it is important to go through a stage of 60+℃ for a day or so, to soften up so bacteria get in, otherwise it may indeed take 6 months to get through a solid chunk, but that is quite different from 6+ months of 60+℃.

Yes, PLA can cause some issues in nature as it is acidic (lactic acid) and in quantity throws off pH balance in soil/compost, so many composters don't like to take PLA. OTOH, it is not a difficult problem to solve, and importantly, lactic acid is not inherently toxic in reasonable quantities (muscles generate it) and it shouldn't take too long for microbes to snatch it up once it is small enough.

To put that in contrast, typical plastics consist of toxic components that you do not want in your system, or even in your garden. They are mostly inert while intact, but they tend to slowly decompose and often leach even while in use.

Examples of compositions:

ABS - acrylonitrile (toxic at low doses [1]), butadiene (Group 1 carcinogen [2]), styrene (known carcinogen [3]);

PET, PETG: phtalate (Endocrine disruptors [4])

  [1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acrylonitrile
  [2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Butadiene
  [3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Styrene
  [4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phthalate

Temperature at land fills get rather high. Not sure about 6 months, it depends where.

TIL. Can you tell me more about the recycling process for PLA?

Shred, heat and extrude.

Wait, wait, let's not give the wrong impression. Yes, you can recycle PLA to an extent but you can't mix it in with your recylables. Few cities can recyle PS, much less PLA or at least they aren't set up to handle it.

If you are curious about the tech, sure, it's recyclable. For practical purposes you may as well throw it in the trash ahead of time and avoid contaminating the recycling. Plus if you try to put it in most commercial composting it will not degrade enough to be usable and has to get removed to avoid damaging the compost. So if you happen to not have the right kind of composting facility you can't handle it.

Yeah, it's on paper no worse than other plastics, but you have to have a plan to handle it -- it's not just a thing you can toss in the recycling bin.

Thank you very much. Not sure why my question was downvoted.

I do wish it were required to give a reason or comment to downvote. I upvoted you to compensate since the downvoter did not do this.

I would dearly love a world in which you provided a reason to download a comment on this site.

PLA is pretty useless as a material though for anything but art. Almost everything I print has a functional purpose and either (a) needs mechanical strength (b) will be placed outdoors in the California sun or (c) will be used to house electronics that may reach temperatures as high as 70-80 C.

PLA is basically useless to me and pretty much all roboticists. I use PETG for almost everything because it works perfectly for all my needs; unfortunately I often need to go through about 2-3 versions of many parts I make and wish there were a better, more efficiently recyclable option that has the same or better properties as PETG.

I’ve just been living with the downsides of pla. Should I just switch to petg?

I have my printer in my bedroom though. Is petg toxi to breathe?

> I’ve just been living with the downsides of pla. Should I just switch to petg?

As far as utility goes it's so much sturdier as a material that I don't even comprehend why people use PLA, especially considering they are very similar in price, and it's much easier to work with than ABS since it is not particularly prone to warping. If PLA can realistically be composted though, that's another story, bu I was under the impression 3D print PLA isn't the same as compostable PLA cups.

> I have my printer in my bedroom though. Is petg toxi to breathe?

PETG is not known to be toxic, so it's a much better choice than ABS if you don't have a garage or fully ventilated area. That said, I'm always skeptical and I don't keep my 3D printer in my bedroom.

Not sure how toxic PETG is but the fumes are quite unpleasant. When I was around where large amounts of PETG were being worked with, ventilation was a must.

yikes, i thought 3d printers were high emitters of tiny plastic particles that are harmful to breath. Hope it's well ventilated

If the part doesn't have to last long or is subjected to smaller forces and the robot is kept in a controlled place PLA is fine. We used them it to make parts for robotics competitions in college.

It really depends on what you're building. For controlled environments that's fine, but unfortunately I'm not building for controlled environments, and tend to do quite extreme things with parts. I need them to be subjectable to force and reasonable amounts of heat. There is no way around it in my applications.

Point is PETG works, sometimes I need to go to CF-Nylon, I'm just looking for something that's as good mechanically and can be recyclable. I wonder if the plastics in the article would work.

> It really depends on what you're building. For controlled environments that's fine, but unfortunately I'm not building for controlled environments, ...

Sample size fallacy right here. Just because it's useless to you doesn't mean it's useless. Plenty are doing fine with PLA.

There's also a company working on a plastic replacement for mushroom grow bags. It would be biodegradable.

Ooh - do you happen to have a link?

Mushroom bags that have additives to biodegrade the plastic - https://www.shroomsupply.com/mushroom-grow-bags/biodegradabl...

Plastic like bags that are made from cassava and dissolve in water - https://www.onegreenplanet.org/news/company-makes-cassava-ba...

And also, cellophane is biodegradable too.

The real problem with plastics is that they are really cheap.

which is because they don't have externalities priced in

It’s more that plastics are a byproduct of oil production.

As oil consumption falls, plastics will rise in price as there is less raw materials produced by oil refining.

Much like if demand for beef and milk fell, leather could be more expensive.

No, the problem is missing infrastructure for waste processing.

What do you propose, how should it be resolved? What would your proposal's potential consequences be (both cons and pros)?

I guess the suggestion you're trying to tease out is that disposable plastics are prohibitively taxed and people adjust to living with reusable containers. Cons: people have to adjust and the plastic lobby might suffer.

"Really cheap" in the short term perhaps. Very expensive in the long term.

What price do you put in the extinction of a species? Millions of years of evolution flushed down the toilet so one person can have their disposable water bottle.

The problem is externalized cost: the people making the decision to use the plastics aren't the ones holding the bill for its disposal.

Isn’t plastic in landfills actually a great way to sequester carbon?

It’s not really a benefit if the original carbon came from oil, because the carbon that was originally deep underground is now at the surface. If anything it’s only neutral, however the carbon emitted during oil extraction and the manufacturing process still results in a net negative.

Landfill isn’t the worst option, but it’s still better to try to avoid the manufacturing of it to begin with.

REDUCE, Reuse, Recycle. People forget (or never realized) the order was intentional.

Although you are right, I don't think it is that people don't know this. Recycle is easy, through it in the blue bucket. Reduce requires a complete re-imaging of our society. This won't happen without substantial taxation on plastics and single use packaging. But that is a bad way to get re-elected and how will we get next day shippping?

To go a bit further, I feel like "reduce" just isn't really in the vocabulary of living organisms. Once any particular cat is out of its bag, it's not going back in (though I'd love to hear some examples to the contrary). It seems like our best bet really is an ever more Rube Goldberg-ian stack of attempted fixes for the problems we create.

The answer is simple mechanically (let economics work by pricing in externalities) but it’s politically tricky because an established industry has significant lobbying and propaganda clout.

There are success stories such as the sharp reduction of CFCs and acid rain contributors, or the reduction in coal pollution once it cost more than alternatives, but we can see the opposite in, for example, the way the oil industry successfully captured a significant fraction of a major American political party and got enough people to believe climate change wasn’t real to avoid a carbon tax for decades we could have used to transform the economy less sharply than will now be needed.

Modern cultures have substantially reduced their use of tobacco and alcohol, have reduced their birthrate below replacement, cut 95% of trans fats out of their diets, and use practically no tetraethyl lead and no DDT at all.

We don't have to continue using endocrine disrupting plastics either. It can't be a blanket ban, we use them in too many places. But they can be phased out.

Agreed. An even better formulation is REFUSE, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

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