Fun fact: Recyclables in the U.S. are not typically recycled in the U.S. The vast majority are sold overseas to manufacturers who want to reuse recyclables in their products or packaging. What happens when there is nowhere to sell the recyclable materials Americans in particular accumulate?
2018 Was A Wake-Up Call For American Recyclers
In January 2018, China officially stopped accepting imports of foreign plastics. Considering China was formerly the country that took in almost half of recyclable plastics from Western countries, the world’s waste plan was put in a tailspin.
This also means less plastic products made from recycled materials coming out of China, the manufacturing giant behind many Western brands. In 2017, China shipped over $21.5 billion in plastic and rubber products, an increase of around 1% from 2016.
What to do with all this unwanted plastic? Unfortunately, anything unsold will likely end up in a landfill. Even biodegradable materials don’t fare well in landfills, with paper and bamboo products taking quite a long time to biodegrade without help from bacteria and organisms in soil.
Plastic bags are some of the worst offenders in landfills, taking up to 1000 years to break down. Even as they break down, they aren’t biodegrading into natural substances that are re-usable by nature. Plastics photo-degrade, essentially just becoming tinier plastic particles. All these micro-plastics accumulate in nearby environments like the ocean, interrupting the food chain by malnourishing and starving the smallest fish and bottom-feeders. The effects reach the top of the chain, to the point where humans have recently discovered alarming amounts of micro-plastics in our own feces.
Luckily, some entrepreneurial spirits are working on a unique way to use extra plastic: our vehicles!
Cars: From Green Offenders to Green Saviors
Japan is one of the top producers of motor vehicles in the world. Each year, the country produces around 7.83 million passenger vehicles. Honda, Subaru, and Toyota are all extremely recognizable Japanese brands with highly positive reputations. With the 2020 Tokyo Olympics approaching, the country is also scrambling to show its engineering prowess, including a newly announced driverless car service to shuttle around Olympics attendees.
Scientists at the University of Tokyo are taking automotive engineering in another new direction thanks to help from state innovation programs. Previously, making car bodies out of plastic seemed too dangerous due to the weak nature of plastics. University of Tokyo scientists have announced a concept car that weighs 40% less than traditional vehicles, as 90% of it is composed of various plastics. The key? Mixing plastics to make a strong enough material.
So what are the upsides? First, a lighter car means less fuel consumption and more avenues for electric car production. Second, you could presumably use recyclables in production of the car (although this hasn’t yet been confirmed by the design team). The downsides? The mix of plastics could mean that the materials used in the vehicle could not be viable for future recycling. Generally, only pure, clean plastics are currently usable in recycling.
Researchers at the U.K.’s Swansea University have another idea. They’ve been able to take unwanted plastics, even those of mixed sources or those that are not clean, and turn them into hydrogen fuel.
Hydrogen fuel cells for transportation such as planes and cars have been in the works for quite a while. They’re not easy or cheap to make, and so they’re in very limited use at the moment. This could change in the very near future.
Even though cars have been long-criticized for their effect on the environment, new tech might change the game very soon. Cars may one day be the ultimate recycling tool for many kinds of waste.