I wish I disliked plastic.
Every time I take a walk, whether it be in a city or the countryside, I see plastic littering the land. This isn’t new; as a child, I saw trash of all kinds piled up in the creeks or along roadsides more often than I would like to remember.
The United States is one of the richest countries ever, and yet entirely preventable, resolvable problems persist. As Americans, we have a hard time dealing with our own waste. We like to not think about it. Waste goes away, and that’s all we need to worry about.
The value of recycling wasn’t instilled in me growing up. I remember being taught about the 3 R’s (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) once in kindergarten and then never again. It wasn’t taught because it wasn’t really an option for me, at home or school. I know now this is because the city’s infrastructure never saw the funding or support it would have needed to enact permanent change.
Along with funding, massive educational campaigns would have been needed. As with anything in life, a learning curve accompanies a behavior change. Time seems to be a more valuable resource now than ever before, and there never feels to be enough time to properly learn and involve ourselves in something new. But while it may seem like we don’t have enough personal time in our lives, I can tell you with certainty that there is no more time for business as usual. The world has made half as much plastic in the past two decades as it did in the entire century before.
I’m 23; I’m a witness to this madness. I am one of many who noticed a problem while they were young, only to have watched it explode into a global crisis before our years of required schooling were even completed. Now, my generation is feeling the pressure to start attempting some collaborative and creative solutions to solve complex world problems. This isn’t something many of us dreamed about doing as kids, but it’s something we feel compelled to do now.
I have spent the past few years of my life studying and working with the chemical recycling of plastics into liquid fuel. This way differs from traditional methods of recycling because it doesn’t reintroduce the plastic into the supply chain as a new plastic product. Rather, converting plastic into a liquid fuel rids it completely from the environment. Plastic waste has little value and needs to be removed from the natural environment anyways as it poses massive risks to the health and wellbeing of life on this planet. Drilling and refining virgin fossil fuels is environmentally destructive and energy intensive, but the fuel burns the same as fuel made from plastic waste.
It’s great to be a part of a technical solution that stands a chance of success, but I don’t think technology alone will save us. There are so many different and interconnected aspects to the problem of global plastic waste accumulation that it can be hard to know where to begin when analyzing the problem and how we got here.
So, when I say I want to dislike plastic, I mean it. But it’s only a material, one that was made by humans, for humans. Plastic has cemented itself firmly in our society, and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Food wastage due to zipper bags and lidded containers has decreased significantly while hygiene and safety (think medical settings) have increased. It’s far cheaper, lighter, and more durable than most alternative materials like glass, metal, or paper.
I like plastic; the possibilities with it are endless. I think the villainization of something due to our own ignorance and mismanagement is a recipe for disaster, and that we must collectively stop being so greedy and start being more cognizant of our full impact.