Toward a circular economy: Tackling the plastics recycling problem

Read the full story at The Conversation.

Why has the world continued to increase consumption of plastic materials when at the same time, environmental and human health concerns over their use have grown?

One answer is they are immensely useful to humankind, and despite problems they create, they have provided countless benefits. They are used to construct lighter automobiles and planes, improving fuel efficiency and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Plastic food packaging has dramatically reduced food spoilage, improving human health as well as decreasing emissions associated with transportation and decomposition of waste. In addition to all these upsides, another benefit often quoted is that plastics are recyclable.

At UMass Lowell, where I am based, we argue that “recyclable” must be clearly distinguished from “recycled.” Unfortunately, society has a long way to go before we could declare plastics recycling a success.

My group has been working for the past eight years on sustainability of plastic materials for a range of applications. We study plant-based and biodegradable polymers, improved technologies for recycling plastics and reducing plastics toxicity. Polymers (long-chain organic molecules) are fascinating materials, and they have provided so many benefits to society; however, as population and consumption rates grow, humans must always be mindful of our relationship with the Earth. It is my goal as a researcher, educator and citizen to harness the tools of engineering for environmentally sound plastics production and use.

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