How China ended the lie of recyclable plastic | Boing Boing
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The plastics industry did a great job of convincing everyone that their product was easily recyclable, but China finally put an end to that pleasant fiction in 2017. A 2017 memo sent by China to th…

Plastics are an incredibly depressing topic. I have questions!

  • I have heard that the price of virgin plastic is so cheap because important inputs are produced as byproducts of other petroleum processing. If those byproducts weren’t being made into plastic, would it be easier or harder to handle their environmental impact?
  • Plastic has a lot of properties that are desirable for packaging. I’m sure there are many of those properties that can be reproduced by analogues if those analogues are produced at scale and thus cost-efficient. What do materials scientists think would be harder to get right?
  • Do governments fund materials research into plastic replacement?
  • Where do economists think it would be most effective to tax plastics to reduce their use / environmental impact? (I.e. at which stage of the production pipeline?)
@ksynwa
41M

If those byproducts weren’t being made into plastic, would it be easier or harder to handle their environmental impact?

Definitely easier. Though the best thing would be to work on reducing the obscene quantity of crude oil that is processed so that oil companies can turn profits.

Plastic has a lot of properties that are desirable for packaging. I’m sure there are many of those properties that can be reproduced by analogues if those analogues are produced at scale and thus cost-efficient. What do materials scientists think would be harder to get right?

I don’t know much about this topic but I feel phasing out plastics would not only require finding alternative materials to replace plastics, but also altering the modes of distribution because the current modes are completely centred around plastic usage. For example, maybe bringing your container to the grocery store and getting it filled with milk instead of buying milk in plastic bags (as people do in Canada).

Maya
admin
creator
21M

Do you know any specifics about the byproducts? Totally agreed on the best thing being reducing petroleum use.

It’s very hard to know what things would be like without / with less plastic because right now plastic’s sucking the air out of the room when it comes to developing alternatives, and no one’s incentivized to make reducing packaging convenient.

@ksynwa
2edit-21M

From the oversimplified summary I know of, first crude oil is made to undergo fractional distillation to separate its components. The part that is used for plastic manufacturing consists of reactive hydrocarbon compounds like naphtha, ethylene, propylene etc. It isn’t until polymerisation and condensation that we get inert polymers which we call plastics. So the byproducts are much better than plastics in terms of longetevity (spell check isn’t helping here).

Maya
admin
creator
11M

Ah this is super helpful!! I’ve always wanted to know but not quite enough to get back into a chemistry headspace

@AgreeableLandscape
admin
2edit-21M

Plastic is the Midas Touch of the modern age. First we thought it was this miracle material that could only benefit us, and now it’s everywhere, in everything, and is causing unimaginable havoc. (Credit to Kurgestat for the analogy)

@koavf
11M
  • I have heard that the price of virgin plastic is so cheap because important inputs are produced as byproducts of other petroleum processing. If those byproducts weren’t being made into plastic, would it be easier or harder to handle their environmental impact? Easier. Those byproducts were in one place and the result of one process by one firm (or a small handful of firms) whose competency is converting crude oil. Instead, plastic is everywhere, in all sorts of forms and qualities. Virtually any substance would be easier to control than the trillions (quadrillions?) of pieces of microplastic strewn across the earth, in the ground, and in the oceans.
  • Plastic has a lot of properties that are desirable for packaging. I’m sure there are many of those properties that can be reproduced by analogues if those analogues are produced at scale and thus cost-efficient. What do materials scientists think would be harder to get right? I know a materials scientist but I am not one, so I am really speculating but I would say that the solution would just be biodegradable plastic.
  • Do governments fund materials research into plastic replacement? Oh yes. https://www.grants.gov/web/grants/search-grants.html?keywords=plastic
  • Where do economists think it would be most effective to tax plastics to reduce their use / environmental impact? (I.e. at which stage of the production pipeline?) I’m only including this question just to say that I’m not sure of that research but I will say that one of the functions of a government is to be a prime mover and to not act with a profit motive. Since a state that is a sovereign issuer of currency can have unlimited funding (with only a few constraints), then it is probably most effective to fund the replacements and subsidize them than it is to tax at any point in the supply chain, especially considering how petro-plastic is an international phenomenon.
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