In defense of plastic (sort of)

The treaty may not be finalized until 2024, and we don’t know all the details yet, although production restrictions have been discussed, and more restrictions on plastic content. But limiting how much plastic countries produce may not be enough to solve the problem.

Finding ways to reshape plastic recycling can also play a huge role in reducing the negative impact of plastic.

Most plastic recycling today relies on thermal and mechanical techniques — essentially melting plastic and reforming it. This works well in some cases, but may result in a lower quality product than you started with.

This is why almost no plastic water bottles collected for recycling are made into new water bottles. Instead, the small portion that ends up being recycled is often used to make other products, such as carpet.

New approaches such as chemical and biological recycling can address some of these issues. For example, last year I wrote about a French company called Carbios that was working on using microbes to recycle plastic PET from water bottles. If the method turns out to be economical, it could help more bottles be recycled into bottles.

But the process doesn’t work with all plastics. This brings us to chemical recycling, which is a huge umbrella term covering a variety of different recycling methods.

For me, one of the most interesting areas of chemical recycling is mixed-feed recycling: different plastics can be processed in one process. Plastic that enters recycling facilities today is separated before being processed, because your water bottle needs to be treated differently than a milk jug.

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