Researchers are proposing that all this plastic be turned into fuel, either for automobiles or to power homes – and even entire cities.
Much of the plastic people use on a daily basis can't be recycled, either because the cost of recycling plastic is too high or the plastics contain certain properties that make repurposing them difficult to do.
While there are already some efforts by entities all over the world to reuse plastic, such as the 21,000 miles of roadways in India made entirely from plastic waste, and the different shoe brands making sneakers entirely out of recycled plastic, these efforts are unlikely to solve the world's plastic pollution problem.
In the long term, countries all around the world need to look to converting plastic waste into energy. This can be done through a process known as pyrolysis.
Pyrolysis is a process that involves melting materials and converting them into usable objects. A 2011 report from Columbia University has found that, if all the non-recycled plastic buried in landfills across the U.S. were converted into fuel through pyrolysis, it could make enough oil to power six million cars for a year and reduce air pollution released by traditional gasoline.
While this may be promising, especially for countries that use up a lot of plastic, such as China and Indonesia, not all plastics can be turned into fuel. Studies have shown that the best sources of plastic fuel come from chip bags, plastic utensils, plastic shampoo and detergent bottles, microwave dishes and garbage bags. This leaves out plastic water bottles, commercial cling wrap and cosmetic and food containers.
Pyrolysis is still an effective method for recycling “flexible plastics,” which include plastic bags and packaging material -- items that are difficult to recycle and make up about half of the plastic waste that enters the ocean. (Related: Building on nature: Scientists improve on a plastic-digesting enzyme to stem plastic waste.)
Furthermore, a report from management consulting firm McKinsey & Company has found that, among all other plastic waste recycling technologies, pyrolysis can generate a lot of profit for businesses. Its potential is second only to standard mechanical recycling. Pyrolysis, the report noted, is a great technology not just for flexible plastics, but also for plastics that can no longer be mechanically recycled.
Fortunately, companies all over the world are already looking into pyrolysis as a way of generating energy. U.K.-based chemical company INEOS has partnered with Plastic Energy to build a pyrolysis-based recycling plant that can convert 33,000 tons of plastic per year. Tire company Michelin has also announced a partnership with Swedish start-up Enviro to recycle used automobile tires through pyrolysis.
Studies have shown that around eight million metric tons of plastic waste enter the ocean each year and that there are currently around five trillion individual pieces of plastic waste in the world's oceans. While cleanup efforts are being conducted by nations all over the world, the flow of plastic from factories and homes to oceans still needs to be stopped.
With better recycling methods, such as more widespread use of pyrolysis, there is hope that plastic waste polluting the oceans can one day be halted completely.