Plastic, Plastic and More Plastic

I spent my last two years in New York City pursuing my career in Chemical Engineering. I was pleasantly surprised with the city’s efforts to motivate recycling. Columbia University had three separate cans: one for paper/cardboard, one for plastic/glass/metal, and one for trash. It was confusing but familiarizing yourself with the process goes a long way. I learned how to categorize recyclable products to benefit the environment.

I went back to Colorado after completing my dual-degree and noticed that not many people from my hometown recycle bottles. Maybe it was just the people that I talk to or perhaps it’s a larger problem. This sparked my curiosity and prompted me to dig deeper. We live in a state that prides itself with the natural attractions so we should put effort into becoming well informed on these topics. If we want to preserve the hiking, camping, rafting, biking, bouldering, and other outdoor activities, we need to respect the environment.

Cedaredge, CO would not look this beautiful with pollutants

In the U.S. about 1,500 plastic bottles are thrown away every second each day. That’s a lot of plastic. On top of that, 90% of bottles are disposed into the trash where they get sent to a landfill and take a minimum of 450 years to biodegrade! What is worse is that bottles made up of Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) will never biodegrade. If the plastics happen to get discarded into the ocean, they begin to photodegrade due to the sun and the particles enter marine life’s food chain. Let’s take a step towards recycling these bottles! For those who think that burning plastic is a great idea (I noticed this in rural areas), think twice. Burning plastic releases harmful chemicals including, hydrochloric acid, sulfur dioxide, heavy metals, and particulates which are harmful to the respiratory system and can potentially cause cancer.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) has conducted research on PET due to its large presence in plastic bottles, clothing and carpet. When PET is recycled, the product has a lower value than it had and is essentially being downcycled. NREL has developed methods to upcycle PET by creating a product with two times the value of the original product and uses less energy than the traditional process. They combine the material with plant biomass to create a valuable fiber-reinforced plastic (FRP).  Further investigations need to be conducted to verify the scale-up an economic benefits of the process, and I am looking forward to seeing where this project goes! Keep an eye out for future upcycling opportunities, but until then, please continue to recycle these materials. 😊 

If there is anything that can be taken away from this short blog it is:

  1. Plastics take a really long time to decompose – please recycle
  2. Do not burn plastic – Harmful chemicals are released
  3. Check out the endless amounts of interesting research that is being conducted at NREL

References

  1. 1,500 plastic bottles are used in the U.S. every second-Holey. Moley. – Green Sheep Water: The water for clean oceans. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.greensheepwater.com/plastic-problems
  2. How Long Does It Take a Plastic Bottle to Biodegrade? (2017, August 26). Retrieved from https://www.postconsumers.com/2011/10/31/how-long-does-it-take-a-plastic-bottle-to-biodegrade/
  3. Retrieved from https://engineering.mit.edu/engage/ask-an-engineer/can-we-safely-burn-used-plastic-objects-in-a-domestic-fireplace/
  4. Rorrer, N. A., Nicholson, S., Carpenter, A., Biddy, M. J., Grundl, N. J., & Beckham, G. T. (2019). Combining reclaimed PET with bio-based monomers enables plastics upcycling. Joule3(4), 1006-1027.
  5. Renda, M. (2019, February 27). ‘Upcyling’ Plastic Bottles Could Alleviate Global Trash Troubles. Retrieved from https://www.courthousenews.com/upcyling-plastic-bottles-could-alleviate-global-trash-troubles/