EU-to-US scrap plastics trade under threat

Read the full story at Resource Recycling.

A branch of the European Union wants to end all exports of recovered plastics within the next four years, a move that would undoubtedly disrupt trade with the U.S. One company leader suggested the impacts could hinge on what the EU decides to consider “waste.”

The European Parliament on Jan. 17 voted overwhelmingly in favor of a plan to update the EU’s Waste Shipment Regulation (WSR) by eventually ending all plastic waste exports from the continent. The proposal would also impose new requirements on any non-plastic scrap material exported from the EU for recycling. 

Several industry groups have sounded the alarm, saying such a move would restrict the free trade of commodities moving to legitimate recycling markets. 

DOE report touts chemical recycling R&D opportunities while noting plastic’s environmental justice issues

Read the full story at Waste Dive and download the report.

The U.S. Department of Energy plans to invest in long-term research and development to improve existing plastic recycling technologies and invent new methods it hopes will cut U.S. energy consumption and prevent pollution.

The DOE recently published its Strategy for Plastics Innovation report, which calls for advancing certain chemical recycling technologies and improving mechanical recycling. It also calls for doing more with biodegradable and bio-based plastics technology and approaching R&D projects with a more intentional environmental justice focus. 

Integrating a Chemicals Perspective into the Global Plastic Treaty

Zhanyun Wang and Antonia Praetorius (2022). “Integrating a Chemicals Perspective into the Global Plastic Treaty”. Environmental Science & Technology Letters 9(12), 1000-1006 DOI: 10.1021/acs.estlett.2c00763

Abstract: Driven by the growing concern about plastic pollution, countries have agreed to establish a global plastic treaty addressing the full life cycle of plastics. However, while plastics are complex materials consisting of mixtures of chemicals such as additives, processing aids, and nonintentionally added substances, it is at risk that the chemical aspects of plastics may be overlooked in the forthcoming treaty. This is highly concerning because a large variety of over 10,000 chemical substances may have been used in plastic production, and many of them are known to be hazardous to human health and the environment. In this Global Perspective, we further highlight an additional, generally overlooked, but critical aspect that many chemicals in plastics hamper the technological solutions envisioned to solve some of the major plastic issues: mechanical recycling, waste-to-energy, chemical recycling, biobased plastics, biodegradable plastics, and durable plastics. Building on existing success stories, we outline three concrete recommendations on how the chemical aspects can be integrated into the global plastic treaty to ensure its effectiveness: (1) reducing the complexity of chemicals in plastics, (2) ensuring the transparency of chemicals in plastics, and (3) aligning the right incentives for a systematic transition.

Farmers battle microplastics in aquatic systems – plastic waste in agriculture

Read the full story at Waste360.

From seed to soybean, farmers are aware of plastics in agricultural systems, but the perception of microplastics in irrigation is fluid, according to a new study in Science of the Total Environment.

NREL develops systematic framework to compare performance of plastics recycling approaches

With only a small percentage of plastics recycled, determining the best way to recycle and reuse these materials may enable higher adoption of plastics recycling and reduce plastic waste pollution. Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) examined the benefits and trade-offs of current and emerging technologies for recycling certain types of plastics to determine the most appropriate options.

The researchers provided a comparison of various technologies for closed-loop recycling, which allow for the reuse of plastic through mechanical or chemical processing, eliminating the need for fossil-fuel-derived virgin materials. They considered technical metrics such as material quality and retention, as well as environmental metrics including energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.

“We know cost is one of the primary—if not the primary—drivers for recycling for companies wanting to invest in it,” said Taylor Uekert, lead author of “Technical, economic, and environmental comparison of closed-loop recycling technologies for common plastics,” which appears in the journal ACS Sustainable Chemistry & Engineering. “But I think it’s just so important to remember that there are other things that are equally important for our life on this planet, and we need to be considering those environmental impacts as well.”

Her co-authors, all from NREL, are Avantika Singh, Jason DesVeaux, Tapajyoti Ghosh, Arpit Bhatt, Geetanjali Yadav, Shaik Afzal, Julien Walzberg, Katrina Knauer, Scott Nicholson, Gregg Beckham, and Alberta Carpenter.

The article outlines how effectively closed-loop recycling technologies would work on polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and three types of polyolefins: high-density polyethylene (HDPE), low-density polyethylene (LDPE), and polypropylene (PP). These plastics have many uses. PET, for instance, is used to make bottles, trays, and carpets. HDPE is found in milk jugs, bags, containers, and toys. LDPE is commonly used to manufacture squeezable bottles, lids, and bags. PP, meanwhile, is used to make yogurt tubs, hangers, and straws.

The recycling rates of these polymers varied in the United States during 2019, from 2% for LDPE to 15% for PET bottles and containers.

“PET is like your common single-use water bottle,” Uekert said. “You might recycle that. But most likely it’s not going to come out the other end as a bottle. It’s going to come out as a plastic tray for putting food on or it might be converted to plastic fibers that could be used for clothing. It’s going back into the same type of plastic, but not necessarily the exact same type of plastic product.”

Two closed-loop recycling methods are available for HDPE, LDPE, and PP plastics: mechanical, in which the plastic is ground up, melted, and made into something new; and solvent-based dissolution, which removes impurities so that the plastic is of suitable quality for reuse. Those same processes can be used on PET in addition to three chemical recycling technologies: enzymatic hydrolysis, glycolysis, and methanolysis.

More than 400 million metric tons of plastic waste is generated globally each year. Current recycling strategies can capture a fraction of these plastics, but there is a lack of consistent data on the capabilities and impacts of these processes. The NREL study quantitatively characterized the performance of plastic recycling technologies—including factors that are usually only discussed qualitatively, like contamination tolerance—and established a methodology for comparing new recycling processes as they emerge.

“It’s not just that you can recycle plastic,” Uekert said. “It’s how effectively can you recycle that plastic?”

Although mechanical recycling outperforms all other technologies as well as virgin plastic production across economic and environmental metrics, the process yields lower quality plastic. Increasing the quality and quantity of plastics to be recycled through better sorting and pretreatment could improve the viability of mechanical recycling, the researchers said.

“To really enable a circular system where we keep as much material in the economy as possible, that’s when we really need to improve our [material] retention through things like better sorting and better yields of your recycling processes,” Uekert said. “If you have a process that only has a 75% yield, you’re going to end up needing slightly more electricity, slightly more chemicals, to recycle one kilogram of plastic than you would if you had something like a 90% or higher yield. That means your overall environmental impacts, your overall cost, is going to decrease as you increase your material retention.”

The researchers pointed out recycling should be treated as a decarbonization opportunity, with the technologies using electricity that could be generated from renewable sources.

Funding came from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Bioenergy Technologies Office and Advanced Materials and Manufacturing Technologies Office as part of the BOTTLE Consortium, a collaborative effort that stands for Bio-Optimized Technologies to keep Thermoplastics out of Landfills and the Environment.

Source: National Renewable Energy Laboratory

Turning plastic waste into a valuable soil additive

Read the full story from the University of California, Riverside.

Chemical and environmental engineers detailed a method to convert plastic waste into a highly porous form of charcoal that has a whopping surface area of about 400 square meters per gram of mass. It could potentially be added to soil to improve water retention and aeration of farmlands.

Transparent 2022: Annual ReSource: Plastic Progress Report

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Transparent 2022 is the third annual report from ReSource: Plastic, providing an update on how Member companies are addressing plastic pollution and identifying new opportunities to maximize impact.

New study shows resin production generates the most greenhouse gas emissions

Read the full story from Environment + Energy Leader.

By the time plastic products reach their end of life, the bulk of their climate damage has already occurred, according to a study that reaffirms greenhouse gasses tied to plastics are mostly generated in prime resin production, shipping and molding. The study, funded by the Remade Institute, was recently published in the journal ACS Sustainable Chemistry & Engineering.

Microplastic pollution swirling in city air: Millions of plastic bottles per year

Read the full story from the University of Auckland.

Researchers calculated that 74 metric tons of microplastics are dropping out of the atmosphere onto the city annually, the equivalent of more than 3 million plastic bottles falling from the sky.

Microplastics could make other pollutants more harmful

Read the full story from the American Chemical Society.

Microplastics — small plastic pieces less than five millimeters in length — are becoming a ubiquitous ecological contaminant. Studies suggest that on their own, these tiny bits are potentially harmful, and it’s unclear what effect they could have on pollutants that latch onto them. Now, researchers show that, when attached to microplastics, UV filters used in products such as sunscreens can make chromium metal more toxic.