As of 2021,6.3 billion tons of plastic trash is present in the world, which is shocking compared to 2 million tons of waste produced in a year, in 1950. This means waste production has increased by a whopping 200 times by 2015. Plastic waste continues to grow at the rate of 9% annually. Every year, 1 million marine animals die due to plastic pollution in water bodies. Even after thousands of recycling campaigns and organizations, about 91% of plastic trash remains unrecycled.
The discussion regarding plastic production and disposal keeps coming up frequently as we keep moving closer to a severe waste management crisis in the near future, as plastic can take around 500 to 1000 years to decompose! So, the moment you dispose of even a simple plastic bag carelessly, remember that it will surpass the life span of all of us and remain an issue of concern for generations!
So, if recycling merely accounts for only around 9% of managed waste, then what are our next resorts?
How can we, be prepared for the great crisis that lies ahead of us?
With necessities come great inventions, as the famous quote goes; some talented minds have already been successful with revolutionary innovations to recycle plastic to great extents. Below are some of the most noteworthy methods aimed at plastic management and radical discoveries that could solve the plastic disposal crisis by organizations, institutes, and individuals-
1. Liter of Light – plastic bottles for lighting
Discovered in the 18th century, electricity became such a significant part of our lives that it is hard to believe that there are people who still have to live without it. 13% of the world population, i.e., around 940 million people still do not have access to electricity.
Liter of Light is now a global movement that aims at providing low-cost lighting that can be manufactured and supplied everywhere. Launched by Illac Diaz under MyShelter Foundation, it is inspired by a previous idea of Alfredo Moser of Brazil. Transparent recycled plastic bottles are filled with water and some bleach and are fitted into a hole in the roofs in such a manner that they reflect daylight.
The bottle is properly fitted to the roof with the prevention of leaks or slipping with one-half of the bottle lying below the roof surface. The refractive property of water is used as the sunlight reaches inside the bottle and it mimics an electric bulb. This solves the issue of indoor lighting in the daytime. For lighting during the night, solar lights are used, where a micro solar panel, LED lights, and the battery is added to the plastic bottle.
Within 20 months from the ideation, the campaign has benefited more than 150,000 households in the Philippines and homes in over 15 countries. It successfully resolves two of the rising issues faced by the world, plastic bottles and lack of electricity, at the same time and has the potential to turn into a much larger revolution.
2. Gjenge Makers LTD – Plastic trash turned into bricks
Nzambi Matee, a 29-year-old Kenyan and Materials Engineer is the founder of Nairobi-based Gjenge Makers, a company that has successfully devised a method to turn plastic wastes into bricks that are stronger than concrete! These bricks are affordable, lightweight, and made of recycled plastics and sand.
Nzambi Matee used to work as an engineer in Kenya’s oil industry before she quit her job in 2017 to start her venture by creating brick pavers from recycled plastic waste and then the machinery for its mass production. Her factory can produce 1500 bricks daily, recycling more than 500 kilograms of plastic waste each day.
So far as many as 20 metric tons of plastic waste have been recycled, to create bricks and construction materials. She employs people for plastic picking and collects waste materials from factories. The combination of processed plastic waste and sand is used to form a mixture that is molded into paving blocks and other products. In 2020, Nzambi was honored as the Young Champion of the Earth by the United Nations Environment Programme for her creation.
Kenya also faces serious housing shortages, with the pandemic aggravating the issue of homelessness. The approximate housing shortage in Kenya in 2012 was two million. Gjenge Makers resolves both the plastic waste management and housing shortage problem through its affordable recycled building materials, also creating employment opportunities as the enterprise flourishes.
3. Discovery of Ideonella sakaiensis – plastic degrading bacterium
Ideonella sakaiensis is a bacterium that belongs to the genus Ideonella. It was discovered in Japan in 2016 by a team of researchers led by Kohei Oda of Kyoto Institute of Technology and Kenji Miyamoto of Keio University. They collected a sample of PET-contaminated silt near a plastic bottle recycling facility and studied it after isolating the bacterium from a mixture of microorganisms.
It has been found that the bacterium can decompose PET (polyethylene terephthalate), which was previously termed as non-biodegradable. With a detailed understanding of this bacterium and the structures of enzymes it produces, production of PET degrading agents is possible, solving plastic disposal and non-decomposing nature of plastics by a great extent.
4. Plastic converted to oil
Plastics consist of petrochemical hydrocarbons along with other additives. With catalytic pyrolysis, plastic wastes can be converted back to liquid oil.
Pyrolysis is a process of thermal decomposition of substances at very high temperatures in an inert atmosphere. Plastics through pyrolysis at temperatures from 300 to 900 degrees celsius in absence of oxygen and added catalysts can convert it into energy as liquid or gaseous fuels. There are many emerging plastic pyrolysis oil manufacturers, and the global warming potential of pyrolysis is comparable to mechanical recycling, making it an efficient and economical alternative. It solves landfilling as well as plastic waste issues in seas and oceans while also producing fuel out of waste.
5. Plastic wastes in road construction
Developed in 2001 by Rajagopalan Vasudevan, a professor of Thiagarajar College of Engineering, this technique is used to make plastic roads that consist of melted shredded plastic wastes blended with bitumen and aggregates. As of 2020, India has built about one lakh kilometers of roads using plastic wastes.
The construction of one kilometer of the road requires nine tonnes of bitumen and one tonne of plastic waste i.e., each kilometer of road uses around one million plastic bags. Such roads are believed to be cost-effective, durable, and more damage-resistant. Other than India, more countries are adopting road construction techniques using plastic as a constituent in the building process.
Dr. Rajagopalan Vasudevan has been awarded Padma Shri in 2018 for his contribution by devising an effective plastic waste management method, that is now implemented all over the country to construct roads.
These are a few of the many solutions researchers and organisations have come up with, to deal with the crisis we are facing. Study of more plastic management techniques are being held and soon we may have many alternatives to manage the damage we have caused in the environment.
As we adopt new alternatives and practices, awareness among people is necessary as well since we will only succeed in this struggle with plastic wastes when every citizen will be educated about the dangers of plastic pollution. Lastly, we have to bring in the change of individual approaches, like eradicating plastic in our daily activities switching to the next most effective alternative, and more consciousness about proper disposal, especially for non-biodegradable and hazardous waste.