Editor's Comments: Are We Fighting Only Half the Battle?

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WHEN IT COMES to making use out of plastic waste, a continuing number of innovators are coming up with ways to use the plastic as a resource for the production of a multitude of useful items. Plastic waste is being used to make everything from tires, to construction materials, to roads, and of course, more plastic products. These are the perfect examples of recycling.

A recent article from WHYY, the NPR station in the Philadelphia region, focused on a company called Continuus Materials in Northern Philadelphia. Continuus has partnered with Waste Management to mine for material such as plastic and cardboard. Continuus has been making a product called “SpecFUEL.” The plastic and paper waste is processed and reduced and made into little pellets that are used as a supplement with coal and burned for energy. The company then started to try to think of other applications for the pellets other than burning it. So it started making wallboard out of plastic and paper waste. Considering about 20 billion square feet of wallboard is used every year in North America, Continuus estimates that its waste-to-wallboard model is capable of diverting about 110 billion pounds of waste from going to the landfill each year.

This is yet another example of a plastic recycling success story. But there is a different point to be made. In the WHYY article, Maurice Sampson, the eastern Pennsylvania director at Clean Water Action, offers his perspective. Sampson believes while the Continuus example is a great lesson on the repurposing of materials, it still doesn’t solve the problem of plastic in the environment.

From WHYY:

“Just because we’re recovering it doesn’t mean we’re improving the overall picture,” he said.

Sampson noted that plastics production has only increased since ways have been developed to recycle the material, and that none of the recycling or recovery is done by the plastics industry—it’s all by third-party vendors that mine plastics much in the way they would mine for iron or minerals. And the products are not recycled into their original form, but rather “downcycled” into different products.

“That’s a good thing, but it’s notgoing to reduce the amount of plastic in the world,” Sampson said, adding that reducing or eliminating single-use plastics is the goal. “It’s not a solution to our waste problem.”

“Downcycling,” as Sampson callsit, is a very good thing. But for thesake of public health, shouldn’t we be spending as much time and resources coming up with best practices that will allow us to do less downcycling? Those are the bigger problems that still need to be solved.

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