Guardian: Only 14% of plastics are recycled – can tech innovation tackle the rest?

The world recycles just 14% of the plastic packaging it uses. Even worse: 8m tons of plastic, much of it packaging, ends up in the oceans each year, where sea life and birds die from eating it or getting entangled in it. Some of the plastics will also bind with industrial chemicals that have polluted oceans for decades, raising concerns that toxins can make their way into our food chain.

Recycling the remaining 86% of used plastics could create $80bn-$120bn in revenues, says a recent report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. But those revenues will never be fully achieved without designing new ways to breakdown and reuse 30% (by weight) of the plastic packaging that isn’t recycled because the material is contaminated or too small for easy collection, has very low economic value or contains multiple materials that cannot be easily separated. Think of candy wrappers, take-out containers, single-serving coffee capsules and foil-lined boxes for soup and soymilk.

Large companies have developed plant-based alternatives to conventional, petroleum-based plastic so that they can break down without contaminating the soil and water. The market opportunity has attracted small, young companies that focus on developing recycling technology to tackle that troublesome 30% of plastic packaging that is headed to landfills at best, and, at worst, to our rivers, lakes and oceans.

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The Invisible Nightmare in Your Fleece

Washing a single polyester jacket can send 1,900 tiny synthetic micro-fibers into waterways, where they can soak up toxins and get eaten by fish. So what is the outdoor industry doing about it?

Outside Magazine
August 2015

illustration_microfibers
Illustration by Laszlo Kubinyi

Gregg Treinish is dismayed about what is coming out of his washing machine.

“What I’m seeing is shocking. Every couple of weeks, I clean out the filter and put the contents in a 32-ounce Ball jar,” says the founder of Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation (ASC), a nonprofit that trains outdoor enthusiasts to collect data for environmental researchers. After roughly two months, Treinish says, “the bottle is more than half-full of the crap that would have otherwise been shed right into the waterway.”

That crap is thousands of synthetic fibers shed from Treinish’s clothing during wash cycles (he captures them in an aftermarket filter), and the waterway is Montana’s Gallatin River. Treinish, whose organization receives financial support from a number of outdoor-gear companies, recently launched a campaign to track the flow of those fibers into fresh water. He plans to share that data with his funders.

What’s so bad about a few plastic threads? In 2011, British ecologist Mark Anthony Browne published a study describing the discovery of micron-scale synthetic fibers, mostly polyester and acrylic, in sediments along beaches the world over, with the highest concentrations appearing near wastewater-disposal sites. That strongly suggested that the micro-fibers came from apparel, a hunch he checked by filtering 1,900 fibers found in the waste-water from washing a single fleece jacket. A similar study at VU University Amsterdam in 2012 estimated that laundry wastewater is sending around two billion synthetic microfibers per second into Europe’s waters.

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