Will Solving the Plastic Problem Just Create New Ones?

It is funny how the human brain can be so easily swayed toward idealism despite the evidence of reality. For example, we like to think of wind power as a completely safe and sustainable energy source. In our idealism, we fail to realize that wind turbines kill birds. Large-scale turbine farms also alter the weather. It is the same idealistic thinking being applied to reducing plastic waste. But will solving the plastic problem just create new ones?

To be clear, the fact that wind turbines come with their own set of problems does not mean that wind energy is not worth utilizing. Likewise, the fact that addressing the plastic problem is likely to create new problems is insufficient reason to change course. We should still move forward in our attempt to reduce plastic from the waste stream. But we should do so pragmatically, not with idealism.

Turning Plastic into Fuel

A good example of a pragmatic approach is revealed in research now being undertaken by California State Polytechnic University (CPP) scientists, as they look to develop a way to turn plastic grocery bags into a diesel-like fuel. The fuel is considered sustainable because it contributes to the circular economy by putting old grocery bags to new use.

Their premise is actually a promising one. Researchers have discovered a way to introduce heat and a catalyst to plastic waste, thus facilitating a chemical reaction that transforms the plastic into a fuel. They still have a long way to go to scale it up and make it economically viable, but if they can perfect the process, they would give the world a huge opportunity to do something with plastic grocery bags other than throwing them in the ground.

All of this is well and good. But there are a couple of things to consider. First, what good is producing a diesel-like fuel if we are actively trying to get rid of the internal combustion engine? Assuming the world achieves its dream of electric vehicles for land, sea and air, the demand for diesel fuel is destined to crash. And if it turns out we never realize a world powered by electric vehicles, burning more fuel only puts more pollution into the air.

The other thing to consider is the waste the conversion process creates. Anyone who knows chemistry knows that it is impossible to convert a material in one form to a new material in a completely different form without producing waste. It is just not doable. What we have to decide is whether the waste generated by converting plastic bags into fuel is more acceptable than just throwing the bags away.

No Process Is Perfect

In our idealism, we fail to consider the fact that no process is perfect. Even recycling industrial scrap plastic, which is something Tennessee-based Seraphim Plastics does very well, can be accomplished without generating some sort of waste. Seraphim trucks burn fuel. The byproducts of that process escape into the air as emissions.

Looking for ways to reduce plastic waste makes sense. Why continue throwing tons of plastic into landfills when it is not necessary? But at the same time, we must acknowledge that addressing the plastic problem might actually create new problems. We have to be prepared to address those problems head-on.

A pragmatic approach to plastic waste is the best approach. Idealism, not so much. An idealistic approach to solving problems creates an unending cycle that ultimately leads to a sense of failure. Perfect solutions are never found because solving one problem almost always creates another. That is certainly the case with plastic waste.

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