A sea turtle swimming in the ocean surrounded by plastic waste.

Summary

  • Plastic has weaved its way into every facet of our lives, and it’s threatening to destroy the planet. Over 8 million pieces of plastic enter the ocean every day. The plastic is eaten by marine animals, invading the food chain.
  • Burning plastic is one way to keep it out of the oceans; however, the extreme temperatures lead to the release of harmful greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change.
  • Cold plasma pyrolysis is a new technology that may solve this issue. Implemented alongside renewable power, it uses far less energy and lower temperatures to access the valuable elements in plastic.
  • The technology is yet to be widely implemented, and further investments into cleaner innovation are needed. However, it presents a possible way to manage the colossal amount of plastic that inhabits our planet.

Introduction

. . . plastic is damaging the oceans, marine animals, the climate and human health.

Climate change and environmental initiatives have never been as widely discussed as they are today. Plans to make the future greener are at the forefront of every major political discussion—as they should be! It’s well-known that the plastic crisis presents a significant hurdle on the path toward making the world cleaner; plastic is damaging the oceans, marine animals, the climate and human health.

When it comes to investing in a cleaner future, green energy is usually the leading solution. The renewable energy industry has enormous potential to reduce the disastrous environmental impact of oil, gas and coal power, but how can it quell the plastic pandemic?

This article sheds light on the impact of plastic and explores a new technology that may turn waste into energy and Canada’s role in managing plastic.

How Does Plastic Impact the Environment?

Reports indicate that the plastic in the oceans will triple by 2040 to 29 million metric tons.

In the 21st century, humans depend on plastic. From packaging to fishing nets and everyday household items, plastic is embedded into every facet of our lives. Unfortunately, all this plastic pollutes the earth and ends up either in the ocean or in a landfill. As plastic takes so long to break down, these waste sites produce harmful emissions, including CO2, contributing to global warming.

Despite the scale of this crisis, it isn’t showing signs of slowing. Reports indicate that the plastic in the oceans will triple by 2040 to 29 million metric tons. Every year 100,000 marine animals die due to this pollution. According to a report by Business Insider, the ratio of plastic to fish was 1:5 in 2014. However, this will likely rise to >1:1 by 2050. We are facing the possibility of having more plastic in the ocean than fish.

So, where does all this plastic come from? Plastic is used in many industries worldwide, but some of it comes from litter, construction debris, industrial facilities, discarded fishing equipment, shopping bags and containers. Alongside these larger items, microplastics pose a severe health concern. There are approximately 5.25 trillion macro and microplastics in the oceans, which make their way into the food chain.

A 2018 study by Mary Kosuth looked into the presence of microplastics in tap water, beer and salt. The results show that 81% of tap water contained microplastics, while all beer and sea salt brands had the presence of microplastics. Moreover, a typical clothes wash produces 700,000 microplastic fibres that end up in the ocean. It’s clear that immediate intervention is needed.

While there are some schemes in place attempting to control plastic use, such as recycling programs, it isn’t enough. Canada only recycles about 9% of its plastic, and Europe recycles about 30% of its waste, while developing countries rarely have any recycling schemes at all. Burning plastics is one way to avoid soil and water pollution; however, it produces harmful greenhouse gases that pollute the atmosphere.

An infographic depicting the life-cycle of microplastics and how they enter the food chain.

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Is Renewable Energy the Answer to the Plastic Crisis?

This process requires a lot less energy than traditional methods for burning plastics.

Although it’s common practice to throw away plastic, it’s a waste of valuable elements, especially when it comes to energy. Plastic contains carbon and hydrogen, which have a similar energy content to fuels like diesel. Unfortunately, it takes a lot of energy and extreme temperatures of up to 3,000°C to melt the unuseful elements. This is where a new technology called cold plasma pyrolysis comes in.

Cold plasma pyrolysis does the same thing; however, with a combination of heat and cold plasma, keeping the temperature around 600°C. This process requires a lot less energy than traditional methods for burning plastics.

Once the plastic melts, it turns into hydrogen, ethylene and methane. Some reports state that using hydrogen and methane as clean fuel sources may be feasible as they don’t create harmful compounds like carbon dioxide (CO2) and soot.

This technology shows some promise for curbing the destructive effects of the plastic crisis. By diverting waste and reusing it in a more eco-friendly way, we may be able to save the lives of marine animals and prevent more microplastics from ending up in the food chain and harming human health.

A crucial challenge that industries face is the competitive cost of virgin plastics, as it’s a lot cheaper to produce new plastic than to recycle it. Decarbonizing plastic production may be one way forward in changing the way we approach plastic. By substituting a low-carbon source, such as renewable power, we can make plastic more sustainable. What’s more, it may be possible to transition away from petroleum-based plastic to bioplastics—plastic materials made from plants. The bid to change the plastic industry must be a global effort; otherwise, the competitive petrol-based plastic will always be more accessible.

With the addition of renewable energy technology, there is potential for industries to use plastic for good. Green energy is the key to displacing large amounts of fossil fuels; therefore, it presents a solution to reuse plastic sustainably.

An infographic showing the process of making plant material into bioplastic.

What is Canada Doing to Reduce Plastic?

Under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, the government is banning damaging single-use plastics as early as 2021.

Many Canadians have experienced the effect of the climate crisis first hand, from wildfires to extreme heatwaves and flooding. They are increasingly anxious about what the government plans to do. To reduce plastic and keep climate change under control, the Government of Canada has implemented various procedures to control the country’s plastic consumption. Under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, the government is banning harmful single-use plastics as early as 2021. This ban may include shopping bags, straws and cutlery.

The government also intends to hold companies responsible for the plastic they produce. Through projects such as the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) programs, companies must manage the collection and recycling of their plastic waste. Furthermore, the government is working with industries to retrieve fishing gear from the ocean, contributing significantly to marine plastic pollution. Finally, in a bid to support the development of upcoming technologies,  the government has invested $10 million into 18 Canadian small to medium-sized enterprises. These investments could be revolutionary for technology like cold plasma pyrolysis.

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Closing Thoughts

The plastic problem is challenging to control, but an immediate solution is needed. Cold plasma pyrolysis presents a possible way to curb the effects of dumping plastic in the ocean and burning it in heavily polluting factories. While cold plasma pyrolysis is promising, there are still some limitations with this technology that need addressing. Alongside technological advancements, Canada aims to reduce plastic by investing, cleaning the marine ecosystems and holding companies accountable for their plastic consumption. This is a start to reducing this global issue, but will it be enough?

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is the plastic crisis?

Most businesses and people are dependent on single-use plastic. Every day approximately 8 million pieces of plastic enter the oceans, contributing to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of marine animals. If the plastic we discard doesn’t end up in the ocean, it ends up in a landfill, where it takes between 20–1000 years to break down. Due to the prolonged decay of plastic, landfills produce greenhouse gases and contribute to global warming.

The unsustainable use of plastic is destroying our seas, the animals, the planet and our health. The more marine animals eat plastic, the more that ends up in our food. In fact, 1 in 3 fish caught for humans contains plastic. By 2050, experts predict there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. Clearly, this issue needs addressing immediately.

 

How does renewable energy reduce the effects of climate change?

The renewable energy industry aims to displace fossil fuel use and provide a more sustainable energy option. If we can reduce the dependence on fossil fuels, like coal, oil and gas, emissions will lower, reducing global warming. Alongside the disastrous wildfires, flooding, and heatwaves, these unsustainable sources destroy wildlife and negatively impact human health and marine ecosystems.

Switching to renewable energy is the way forward. Renewable power has the potential to improve air quality, water and soil pollution because they do not emit harmful gases. The International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts solar power will dominate the energy industry by 2050. These trend predictions are unsurprising as solar is the safest form of energy and the cheapest to produce.

 

What is cold plasma pyrolysis?

Cold plasma pyrolysis uses heat and cold plasma to break down plastic without the extreme temperatures associated with traditional burning. In the past, temperatures would reach 3000°C to melt the plastic down. With this new technology, cold plasma pyrolysis can get to the valuable elements while keeping temperatures around 600°C. Compared to the pollution from burning plastic and dumping it in the ocean, this process is better for the environment since it uses less energy and produces less harmful emissions.

Once melted, the plastic turns into hydrogen, ethylene and methane. Experts say using these as clean fuel sources may be feasible because they don’t produce harmful emissions like CO2, unburnt hydrocarbons and soot.

 

How can humans reduce plastic waste?

There are many ways to reduce plastic in your household. Reusing is the most significant and impactful way to reduce your plastic waste. It may include opting for reusable containers, bottles, cutlery, and bags. Growing your own fruits and vegetables is also an excellent way to reduce plastic and your carbon footprint.

 

How to invest in green energy?

Investing in sustainable practices is critical to reaching climate goals and lower emissions. For instance, investments in new technologies such as cold plasma pyrolysis and renewable energy systems will help provide the world with cleaner ways to manage plastic and switch to clean energy.

Other ways to invest in green energy include:

  • Supporting local community green projects.
  • Investing in solar stocks and green energy stocks to boost the renewable energy industry.
  • Installing solar panels for your home or business.

 

What is Canada doing to address the plastic problem?

The Government of Canada has taken action against the plastic pandemic by implementing procedures to reduce single-use items, hold companies responsible and clean up the oceans.

As part of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, the government plans to ban harmful single-use plastics, such as shopping bags, straws and cutlery. Alongside this ban, it plans to hold companies accountable for managing the collection and recycling of their plastic production through programs such as Extended Producer Responsibility. The Canadian government also intends to work with the fishing industry to retrieve discarded equipment from the ocean.

 

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