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Time to Rethink: Plastics

Jim Correll, director Fab Lab ICC at Independence Community College, Independence Kansas 

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” Several times I’ve seen this quote attributed to Mark Twain and now I see that at least one web site says he didn’t ever write anything like that. At any rate, it is a true statement. 

In our work with Fab Lab members and entrepreneurs, we encourage them to challenge and test their assumptions. In the case of members, it’s often assumptions about what they think they cannot do; for entrepreneurs, it’s how their products or services will be received in the marketplace. 

As a society, I believe it’s time to challenge our assumptions about the effectiveness of recycling, no matter how well intentioned, and the ongoing use of plastics in general, especially the single-use kind like food and beverage containers as well as packaging for everything from household products to paint. 

My assumption has always been that if we could just get everyone to properly recycle their plastics, we wouldn’t see them piling up around the world. 

Awe observe discarded plastics are showing up all over our global waterways, we have to realize this assumption is incorrectThere are news reports that China is no longer taking in vast quantities of unrecycled plastic. Recyclers say that a lot of used plastic is piling up waiting for the economics of recycling to make it cost effective for processing into new products. Apparently, these plastics are getting away as there are several huge “plastic basins” in both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. The amount of accumulating plastic is growing rapidly. A young Dutch student, Boyan Slat, has designed and raised millions of dollars to build a huge net harvesting system in an attempt to clean up these basins. So far there have been lots of problems in getting his system to work. A primary problem is that it’s just too big to be manageable. By the way, two of our Southeast Kansas middle school STEM camp girls had projects that envisioned smaller “robotic water drones” that would move through water, scoop up plastic and return it to a mother ship. At first, I wondered how such a small thing could have any effect on a problem this size. Then I thought about the possibility of 10,000 little drones all retrieving plastic waste and taking it to the mother ship. After all, God didn’t design one huge being to harvest pollen from a whole field of flowers at once, He designed thousands of bees to fly through the fields each bringing pollen back to the hive. 

Even if one of these solutions works to gather the plastic, what to do with it? Critics say the problem needs to be stopped before the plastic gets to the ocean. Two emerging technologies might eliminate much of the used plastic before it has a chance to get to the oceans and waterways and anywhere else. There is promising research into bacteria and even some insects that can consume plastic and break it down biologically. The other is the idea of making biodegradable plastic from organic material like corn or hemp. I saw a report of hemp-based water bottles biodegrading in just 80 days. Presumably this is triggered by a chemical reaction with soil. I don’t want to find my tornado shelter flooded one day because the 80-day countdown happened with my emergency water stock in hemp bottles. 

I’ve never been a tree-hugging environmentalist but growing up we talked about stewardship and being good caretakers of our resources. My mother did not waste things or throw them away irresponsibly because she believed that would not be good stewardship. She also had a whole drawer full of plastic bags and washed food containers so they could be used more than once. 

Should we continue to recycle? Of course. As individuals, we should be aware of what plastics cannot be recycled and get them to the landfill, so they don’t have a chance of making their way into our lakes, rivers and even oceans. As a society, we need to challenge our assumption that recycling will take care of our plastics problem and support solutions that degrade and return plastics back into basic elements that can be used by the ultimate recycling system—Mother Nature. 

Jim Correll is the director of Fab Lab ICC at the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship on the campus of Independence Community College. He can be reached at (620) 252-5349, by email at jcorrell@indycc.edu or Twitter @jimcorrellks. Archive columns and podcast at jimcorrell.com. 

Sidebar: 

How far could you get through your day without using single-use plastics. Let’s find out. We won’t even count single-use plastic-wrap packaging since it can be safely disposed of in a landfill. If your sheets are dirty, you can’t wash them. Try finding laundry detergent in boxes instead of plastic bottles. 

You can get out of bed and use the restroom. Brush your teeth? No, the toothpaste tube and cap are plastic. 

Coffee, probably not as nearly all coffee is packaged in plastic whether the “K-cups” or ground coffee containers. If you buy your coffee in plastic lined bags, ok, you can have a cup. 

Eggs for breakfast? Probably not unless you go out of your way to buy paper egg cartons. You can’t wash your dishes; detergent come in plastic containers. You’ll have to use paper plates and good luck finding non-plastic tableware at your local grocery store. You can eat with your fingers.  


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