Did you know the polyester fabric covering your couch and the foam cushioning in your seat, are made from the same oil and gas used to make plastic water bottles and food packaging? Our love for plastic and reliance on a finite resource like petroleum are now outweighed by the irreversible health and environmental costs.
The EPA estimates that 13% of all trashed plastics are actually recycled. The huge majority ends up hidden in landfills or forgotten in water ways, all eventually breaking down into microplastics that chemically poison and physically debilitate the environment. The troublesome additives used in plastic, like BPA used to strengthen food containers or flame retardants as a safety precaution in couch foam, do more long term harm than good.
Couch foam is a plastic
Conventional couch foam is particularly dangerous since it cannot be recycled at all, and generally includes toxic chemicals like flame retardants that accumulte in our bodies, dirt, air, and water. In fact, polyurethane foam is doubly dangerous when reshaped into carpet padding and home insulation; the same cancer causing and DNA altering chemical toxins incognito.
In the same way flame retardants are inhaled via tiny bits of old couch foam floating in the air or settling down with the dust bunnies, these same bits can travel via water. Barely visible to the eye, couch foam represents the agenda microplastics push: leaching chemicals and travelling up the food chain.
See the below left, the distance travelled by dusty particles containing PBDE flame retardants is fast and vast, from North America to Tasmania in under ten years! The VICE trailer on the right shows how (micro) plastics also travel far and deep. And mind you, flame retardants limited by TB117-2013, as well as their legal replacements like TDCIPP that are known to disrupt hormones and cause cancer, all take the same journey.
The disconnect between recycling and microplastics
We learned in The Big Bigger Picture of Recycling that “recycling is tied to commodity prices….it’s cheaper right now to manufacture new plastic than recycle used plastic”. Although we recycle 34% of the trash we generate, much ends up in the incinerator due to poor sorting and cleanliness. Currently, the cost to manufacture from recycled plastic is cheaper, but pre-recycled plastic is a “negative-value material” that gives businesses little incentive to goalpost a safer option.
When there’s a choice, I choose products in recycled plastic containers or cardboard packaging (i.e. dish soap, laundry soap in a box, peanut butter in a glass jar) so I can avoid contributing to a seemingly strained recyclables industry. Aiming to use the least amount of petroleum based products in all areas of life is a belief many of us practice everyday.
For the microplastics already in the world, recycling isn’t even an option. The technology and infrastructure to filter microplastics from our drinking water and the ocean are not yet in effect. Don’t despair, researchers are focused on making use and controlling the overflowing supply of recyclable plastics that will ultimately save us money and our carbon footprint.
We're all familiar with mechanical recycling when plastic is melted and reshaped; just toss it in the blue bin to get it done! Plastic's future is limited by this traditional approach: different plastic types that cannot be mixed, plastic becomes weaker the more times it's recycled, and some plastics are difficult and hardly recycled such as plastic film. Chemical recycling is revolutionary by breaking down plastic to it's most basic molecular structure and chemicals which can be used to create completely new plastics types and alternative fuels. In the big picture, we increase manufacturing efficiency with better products, decrease reliance on landfills, reduce toxic exposure and presence of plastic additives like BPA, and revalue materials currently viewed as unusable trash.
Just this week, Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology Geoffrey Coates introduced the discovery of a 'multi block polymer' that binds the previously unmixable PP and PE plastics. These are also known as the most common and produced types of plastic in the world. By creating a new, stronger plastic from formerly opposing types of plastic, we avoid using precious petroleum for something we already have too much of.
IBM Research in California have a "recycling process that converts BPA-leaching plastics into environmentally safe material...--a technological advance that could lead to less plastic waste and cheaper recycled materials manufacturers can use to produce a wide range of products." Unlike the chemical bonds of flame retardants, we now have a method to deconstruct BPAs and plastic. By extending the life and purpose of existing plastic perhaps we can slow and reduce the saturation of plastic contaminating our natural resources.
The amount of uncontrolled plastic in the world is overwhelming in the big picture. Microplastics dampen the confidence in my individual actions, but digressing focus from a unhealthy and struggling earth will only quicken our own downfall. Chemical recycling may be the light at the end of the tunnel, signaling the possibilities of science's solution to change and improve how we approach our current quality of life. If researchers like Geoffrey Coates and IBM are determined to save earth and push on, then I'm down to do the same. You down too?