Earth Day 2024: Planet VS Plastics

April 22 2024 - Cameron Barker, Senior Researcher

The invention of plastics, it could be argued, was both a blessing and a curse for our society. On the one hand, you have the countless benefits they have brought, from their applications in advanced medical technologies to their humbler uses (e.g. keeping our food fresh), but on the other, you have the sheer scale of the pollution they cause. One only needs to look at the infamous “Pacific Garbage Patch” to get a taste of this.

While some would argue that we should eliminate the use of plastics in things such as packaging entirely, it is doubtful this would be realistic, at least in the short and medium-terms. So, what can be done to ensure these miraculous materials can still be used, just with less of the harm? Enter chemical recycling.

As a result of linear economies and our “take, make, waste” economic paradigm, waste plastics are either landfilled, incinerated, or conventionally recycled. While conventional recycling is of course preferable to the former two options, it is by no means ideal; plastics can only be conventionally recycled a number of times before they degrade and can no longer be recycled in this manner.

This is where chemical recycling comes in. With the use of extreme temperatures and chemical processes, plastics can be broken down into substances that contain their “building blocks. These substances, which can be either liquid or gaseous, can be used as feedstocks for the creation of new plastics, without the need for use of virgin raw materials, such as crude oil. In essence, think Lego meets chemistry.

Now, where do investors come in? The answer is relatively simple, or more simple than advanced industrial chemistry, anyway. Investors have the ability to channel financial resources to companies developing chemical recycling solutions. Historically, the use of feedstock from chemical recycling has been less popular than using raw materials, seen as crude oil has been considerably cheaper to buy. However, we have to be frank – crude won’t last forever. Investing in alternatives is therefore not only of great importance, if we are to keep using plastics in a responsible manner, but is also a potentially lucrative investment opportunity.

This Earth Day, while we should all continue to celebrate the small things we can do to limit plastic use (e.g. use reusable bottles, switch the sandwich bags for a good ol’ fashioned Tupperware, etc.), we should also look beyond these. Yes, we need to kick our addiction to unnecessary plastics, but what large-scale, industrial solutions are out there to help us with the plastics that we actually need? After all, I imagine we’re all happy to ditch the single use plastic cutlery that still occasionally rock ups with takeouts, but I think we’d all prefer to keep our predominantly plastic MRI scanners.

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