Young seniors looking back from 2050 to November 2021:

HOW PLASTICS SECURED THE WORLD’S FUTURE: ADDING VALUE TO WASTE

Text: Aman Das, Annemarie Doze, Esli Diepenbroek & Storm van der Voort, winners ChemistryNL challenge for talent students  PhotoNick Fewings
24 november 2021

It’s 2050, and while there are no flying cars yet, the world now recycles 90% of its plastics. We’ve achieved the UN Sustainable Development Goals and reached the targets in the Paris Agreement: all due to revolutions in plastic recycling.


Text:
Aman Das, Annemarie Doze, Esli Diepenbroek & Storm van der Voort, winners ChemistryNL challenge for talent students
Photo:
Nick Fewings

Initially, plastic producers and companies were sceptical due to the start-up costs required for this technology

Thirty years ago, at the start of our career, humans still extracted remnants of extinct species to turn them into persistent plastics. These plastics polluted the oceans, carried a massive carbon footprint, damaged ecosystems, and accumulated in our bodies; being detectable even to this day. The only major method to deal with plastic waste was to burn it, which would release immense amounts of toxic substances and carbon emissions.

The urgent and multi-faceted nature of the plastic problem demanded worldwide collaborations amongst companies, academia, governments and consumers. The utility, versatility and inexpensiveness of plastic also meant that they could never be phased out of society completely. Research institutions and companies approached the plastic problem in two ways. First, renewable, bio-based feedstocks were used to make novel biodegradable plastics. However, as one can imagine, this would fail to deal with the plastic waste at hand.

As chemists and chemical engineers, we harnessed value from waste plastics by making revolutionary advancements in versatile chemical recycling technologies – such as pyrolysis, solvolysis, dissolution, and catalysis – which allowed us to chop the long polymer molecules in waste plastics into smaller molecules with unparalleled efficiency, and with a much-reduced energy demand and carbon footprint. These versatile smaller molecules could either be used as a sustainable replacement for fossil feedstock to make new plastics, or be ‘upcycled’ and converted into other high-value and sustainable chemicals. These first breakthroughs required years of optimisation and cooperation to make the chemical recycling of plastics scalable, inexpensive, and accessible. Initially, plastic producers and companies were sceptical due to the start-up costs required for this technology. Eventually, governments introduced a ‘carbon-tax’, which increased the cost of fossil-derived plastics and incentivised companies to adopt chemical recycling. Consumers gained awareness about the effects of their purchases on the environment due to initiatives set up by activists, and demanded that recycled plastic be used wherever possible. Through these combined efforts, recycled plastics finally became cheaper than fossil-derived ones in 2040.

In 2050, plastics no longer adversely affect humans and the environment. Everyone can reap the benefits of plastics in a plethora of applications without tapping into unsustainable fossil resources, and every purchase of recycled plastic augments the circular plastics economy. Looking back, this would have been impossible without the synergy amongst companies, academica, governments and consumers.

In the future, humankind will improve the scalability of renewable plastic production to meet the demands of an ever-growing population. Advances in ‘smart plastics’ are also rapidly progressing, with plastics that can act as touch-screen interfaces currently being developed. This marks an exciting time in plastics research, and our combined efforts will result in a future brimming with safe, renewable and smart materials.