It is not difficult to imagine that many thousands of years from now, when archaeologists who confront the remains of our time and have to name it in some way, will choose the “Age of Plastics”. The world is a monster that eats plastic. Today, the production of this type of material eats 6% of the world’s oil consumption, but it is only the beginning . In 30 years, it is expected to be around 20%.
Above all, because, despite all the initiatives to replace it , plastics are resisting tooth and nail: we do not have an easy way to completely retire them from modern life. And so, while hundreds of companies and laboratories are looking for substitutes, other researchers have asked another question: can we make it less harmful to the environment?
If we can’t get rid of the plastics, let’s make them a little better
And, although we usually focus on emissions from transport and energy production , the truth is that to meet global climate goals we have to give a twist to the economy of plastic so that it does not emit (so many) gases of greenhouse effect . The objective is clear, the way there is something much more complex.
Many strategies have been proposed to mitigate these emissions – from decarbonizing the plastics supply chain to applying “circular technologies” that reuse fossil carbon feedstocks, such as chemical and mechanical recycling, biomass utilization, and carbon capture and utilization); however, with the technology we handle these processes consume too much energy and are too expensive . That is, it sounds good, but it is unfeasible on a practical level.
Today, Science magazine brings a review of the matter that points to a major change that may be underway. Raoul Meys’ research team have collected more than 400 technological data sets (a representative sample of the life cycle of more than 90% of the world’s plastics) to demonstrate that, with current technology, combining recycling, the use of biomass and carbon sequestration, net zero emission plastics could be achieved with lower energy demand and lower operating costs than current production technologies.
In numbers, the authors estimate that it would be a savings of 288 billion dollars by 2050. That is the good news, the fundamental condition for all this to work. It is easy? No Is it likely? Surely neither. But that technology makes this path viable is exceptional news.