WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
Plastic is a great material, but it’s also a curse that needs a cure … this is the first time a single technology has been able to recycle every kind of plastic.
Wildlife filmmaker Sir David Attenborough this week appeared in a video campaign for a new plastic recycling technology in the UK, alongside other naturalists calling for stronger protections for the world’s oceans.
The campaign heralds the construction of a new ground breaking recycling facility in the UK which Mura Technology, the company behind it, claims will be the “first in the world capable of recycling all types of plastic” – something that no other recycling technology today can claim even though plastic is now so ubiquitous there are more pieces of it in the ocean than fish.
The new process also means that in the future much more of the 300 million tons of plastic trash produced annually worldwide could be reused, reducing the quantity of plastics that end up in the ocean.
“What’s so tragic about plastic pollution is that it is so totally unnecessary,” Attenborough says in the video, “The plastic in our oceans should never have found its way there in the first place.” And he’s right.
Attenborough is joined in the video by the prominent marine biologist and campaigner Dr Sylvia Earle, and Jo Ruxton, producer of the 2016 Netflix documentary A Plastic Ocean.
The new technology in action
Mura’s recycling process, branded HydroPRS, took 12 years to develop and uses supercritical steam – steam that is superheated under great pressure – to break down plastics back into the oils and chemicals they were made from. Those components can then be used for a range of products, from new plastics to fuels.
“Our process offers a viable recycling route for materials considered ‘unrecyclable’, that would otherwise be destined for landfill, incineration and the environment,” says Steve Mahon, CEO of Mura Technology, “HydroPRS can convert all plastic types back into their constituent ingredients, for re-use in the manufacture of new plastic materials.”
Mahon said there is no limit to the number of times plastic can be recycled using the process, and the process is even able to separate organic materials from plastics such as food packaging. Those organic materials are in turn used to fuel the boilers at the heart of the process.
The new plant is being built in Teesside, northeast England, with plans to roll the technology out worldwide. It has received government support, with Rebecca Pow, the UK under-secretary of state for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, saying: “The Government is committed to both clamping down on the unacceptable plastic waste that harms our environment and ensuring more materials can be reused instead of being thrown away. By investing in these truly ground-breaking technologies, we will help to drive these efforts even further, and I look forward to seeing them develop and deliver real results.”
New methods to cope with plastic waste are desperately needed, with more than 8 million tons of plastic waste ending up in the ocean every year. As well as destroying critical ocean ecosystems, these plastics break down into microplastics, which can now be found in almost every food system on Earth, including in our drinking water, table salt, and even in the air.
But far from the plastic mountain reducing, the problem is set to get worse, with plastic waste expected to increase six-fold by 2030, eclipsing all current efforts to curb the crisis. The situation is likely to worsen further still with oil companies such as Exxon Mobil and Shell investing heavily in new plastic production. But given their low cost and versatility, plastics are unlikely to be replaced by alternative materials on a large scale in the near term, and even though there have been breakthroughs in developing biodegradable plastics and plastics that can be infinitely recycled and broken down with bacteria without a loss of quality, the problem is only set to get bigger in the future not smaller – unless companies and consumers alike change their behaviours.
“Plastic will remain the preferred solution for many applications due to its utility, light weight and high adaptability, enabling industrial scale, fast moving consumer goods production processes,” Mahon said. For that reason, he explained, recycling plastics more effectively, in larger quantities, is the key to curbing their environmental impact – hence the involvement of David Attenborough.
“Our discussions with Sir David Attenborough focused on the contribution advanced recycling can make to address unrecycled plastics we see in our environment, particularly the oceans,” he said. “Sir David was pleased to support the search for new solutions to the apparently intractable problem of ocean plastics.”
In Europe, efforts are afoot to deal more systematically with the plastic problem: in January, the EU introduced a plastic tax that charges firms €800 ($946) for every ton of non-recycled plastic used. And from 2022, the UK government will start charging £200 ($274) per ton for plastic packaging that has less than 30 percent recycled content.
Such rules, Mahon said, could help to make recycling more cost competitive.
“We believe we can reach a point where we can compete with virgin materials on cost alone,” he said. “This is really important if we are to make recycled content the preferred choice for the whole industry.”