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Plastic is fantastic!

By Ken Calvert - posted Monday, 11 October 2021


Our news media has become overwrought about microplastics, in particular about the places where they have been found – places that damage our health. We are told that we should not burn plastic because it pollutes the atmosphere. In previous decades the West was able to compress and bale up a great deal of waste plastic and export it to the Third World. However, Southeast Asia and China have developed to the point that while they still manufacture the majority of the plastic products we use, they don't want it back for recycling. Glass and plastic are both cheaper to make out of clean raw materials, silica sand and petroleum gases. The cost of gathering and recycling dirty mixed colours and impurities makes this process less economical than starting from scratch.

Indeed, so much of what Asia uses itself gets thrown out in their own rubbish. We read on the internet that the vast bulk of those gyres of plastic in the middle of our oceans emerges from 10 rivers in Asia and Africa. Thousands of tonnes of plastic floating out in open sunlight and in highly soluble conditions creates a major problem, because we now know that sunshine is the main problem with microplastics. It is the energy in sunlight, more particularly ultra violet radiation, that degrades plastic to the point where it becomes brittle and fractures down into microscopic particles that can enter our food chains and even our bloodstreams and our babies.

This is really sad because plastic is ubiquitous. It can be put to so many helpful and efficient ways that there is no way we would be prepared to ban it. Plastic wrapping keeps out so many germs and pathogens from our foodstuffs that it is a major contributor to our health and safety. In time, this era, from the late 20th century onwards, will surely be known as the "Age of Plastics", and plastic will feature in history books as a significant contributor to world development. Unfortunately there is so much of it – and since it has been created by our own human ingenuity rather than natural processes, nature has not evolved a way to recycle it back into earthly systems. Therefore it is up to us to solve the problem.

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Despite the fact that only 2-3% of the world's petroleum resources, mainly the polymerising gases ethylene and propylene, go into manufacturing plastics, there still seems to be so much of this plastic stuff around. And that seems particularly ridiculous when we ask ourselves: what happens to the other 97% of petroleum resources? These resources become petrol, and diesel, and gas turbine fuel. We burn it to move the world around! We generate 97% more tonnes of CO2 and water vapour into the atmosphere from engines than we might generate from plastic, and few people complain. Furthermore, water vapour is at least 90% more effective as a greenhouse gas than CObut nobody wants to know about that, either. When people are prepared to ignore the numbers, its usually for political reasons rather than logic.

When it comes to engineering and petroleum, nothing is wasted. Even the dregs of petroleum, heavy bunker oil or black oil, is used by ships. And they are usually far enough out to sea for any pollution not to be noticed. So, if we burn our coal, petroleum, and natural gas to keep ourselves warm and comfortable and able to save up to fly to our next holiday resort, why do we not burn our waste plastics along with coal to produce the electricity for our industries, our comfort and our entertainment? Municipal solid wastes are used all over the northern hemisphere for electrical generation. Waste wood, paper, plastics, rubber, tires, old furniture, old oil, you name it, are burnt in specially designed 'municipal power plants' whose outputs are regulated to get the maximum amount of cost savings in each city by levelling off its peak demand times. Only the food wastes and sewage are processed into methane and biosolids for agriculture. Because our municipal history in Australasia only starts with Captain Cook, all our big cities still remain as our ports of entry. In those early days we simply dumped it all out of sight and mind and piped all the rest out to sea, which we still do! What a waste!

It seems that Green Socialist politics shout the loudest, or it's our left wing media moguls who are more prepared to listen. Back in 2015, Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of U.N.'s Framework Convention on Climate Change, admitted that the real goal of environmental activism is not to save the world from ecological calamity. but to destroy capitalism and nationalism and create a world-wide United Nations socialist world government. What better way to destroy big business than to attack energy use, so they jumped, all too quickly, on carbon dioxide. At only 0.04% of our atmosphere, that's 400 parts per million that we breathe in but 4,000 when we breathe out. Even that is miniscule. Halve that 400 level and our world would grind to a halt as plants began to starve to death. Every greenhouse horticulturalist tries to keep growth at the optimum, which is 1200ppm, three times the present figure. Plants at that level draw in more carbon dioxide and water vapour to make more photosynthetic sugars and breathe out more oxygen. Just what we need to survive "Global Warming." Or was it "Climate Change"? No, sorry "Climate Crisis", "Extinction Rebellion", anything to stay on the front page.

As it is, a small constant rise is increasing the greening of all the globe's arid landscapes ,particularly the Sahel area of the Sahara desert. Satellite photography is a wonderful thing. What, more green stuff, more plants! That means more CO 2 being taken up and absorbed? . And as for a 20 rise in temperature, let's just move the Tropic of Capricorn down a bit closer to us. We could do with it.

So what is to stop us burning as much as possible of our wastes to help the greening of the planet? The only plastic that we should avoid burning is polyvinylchloride, the soft rubbery coating on electric cable, less than 1% of the total. That releases chlorine similar to the poison gases of World War 1 into the atmosphere,. Polyethylene, our most prevalent plastic, is crosslinked ethylene gas and as innocuous as driving your car to the supermarket. However, to get the most efficient combustion and avoid putting unburnt carbon into the atmosphere, just as when when you burn petrol out in the open, choose your municipal recycling scheme rather than your own home rubbish burner.

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Article edited by Margaret-Ann Williams.
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About the Author

Ken Calvert is a retired waste treatments chemist/engineer and has spent most of his working life in the third world, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, Vietnam, and mainly with coffee processing. For every tonne of Coffee beans exported there is 4 tonnes of dirty water and three tonnes of rotten fruit pulp to be disposed of. His website is www.coffee.20m.com.

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