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Plastic Waste: You Can't Manage What You Don't Measure

Mike M. McMahon | May 18, 2020
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In 2015, the state of Alabama paid approximately $32 million to bury 711,436 tons of recyclable materials from its residents in landfills. If these materials instead had been collected and sold for their recyclability, they would have generated an estimated $85 million and created 1,200 jobs in Alabama. 

“If you pay taxes, you should care about the issue of plastic waste,” says Kathryn Beers, Program Manager for the Circular Economy at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) at the U.S. Department of Commerce. “We are paying a lot of money to dispose of our waste, and a big fraction of that waste is plastic material that actually has tremendous value… And then there are the environmental impacts. Plastics that are ending up where we don't want them: in the oceans, wildlife, water, soil, and everywhere else.”

Today, the world produces about 300 million additional tons of plastic waste per year—nearly equivalent to the weight of the entire human population. Only 9 percent of this plastic is actually recycled. 12 percent is incinerated—often to produce electricity. A staggering 79 percent of plastic ends up in landfills or the environment.

Beers, a polymer chemist who has been working on plastics at NIST for two decades, is a network member of the Program on Plastics, Ecosystems, and Public Health (PEPH) at the Institute for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern University (ISEN). PEPH brings together partners from academic, government, industrial, and civic organizations to develop scalable solutions to issues of plastic waste.

“For a long time, I have been very interested in developing new routes to sustainable polymers,” says Beers. Polymers are the molecules that make up plastics generally. “I think about ways to make them degradable, or with more environmentally friendly processes, or have a better end-of-life trajectory than the traditional plastic that we've all been enjoying the benefits of for many years… The idea that we can somehow remove plastics from our modern lives any time soon I think is virtually impossible. I'm very interested in what we can do in an economically viable way to make them better… I’m excited to work with ISEN on this.”

We are paying a lot of money to dispose of our waste, and a big fraction of that waste is plastic material that actually has tremendous value.”

Kathryn Beers, Program Manager for the Circular Economy at NIST

Although many average citizens may be unfamiliar with NIST, its role is fundamental to the successful functioning of innumerable industries and government regulations. As one of the country’s oldest physical science laboratories, NIST produces state-of-the-art measurements, technologies, standards, and calibration services for everything from smart electric power grids and electronic health records to atomic clocks, advanced nanomaterials, and computer chips to name just a few. By working across government and industry to produce such standardized measurement tools, NIST facilitates and accelerates innovation.

NIST also has a long history of working on polymers. Through intensive research and testing, NIST scientists aim to understand the physics, engineering, and chemistry of these materials to help improve their properties and performance. NIST is also involved in developing standardized quantitative measurements of contamination and toxins in the environment—including plastic debris—to understand the role of human waste and discharges.

“NIST acts by providing good measurements and scientific data to help support decision-making when policies and regulations need to be written. This includes for states and municipalities, who are really the people on the front lines of the issue of plastic waste,” Beers says. “I can't stress enough how important it is to work cooperatively with various levels of government, industry, and the environmental side of things. If we don't work together, we could end up with regulations that don't really help the problem or actually can make it worse.”

In the face of mounting environmental pressures associated with plastic waste and uncertain public health impacts, Beers remains focused on developing new approaches to bringing about lasting change.

“If we think that we can solve this problem using the same systems and technologies that we've been using for the last 30 or 40 years, I think we're destined to fail,” she says. “There's a lot of new energy around how to deal with these materials that recognizes the need for many different solutions—bolstering mechanical recycling and sorting, bringing online new technologies for chemical recycling and upcycling, implementing new policies that serve the needs of both chemical and mechanical recycling, as well as simplifying and cleaning up the waste stream that is being produced.”

Beers points to the economic opportunity of improved infrastructure, materials, and processes. A report released by the American Chemistry Council found that the potential economic impact of expanding advanced plastic recycling and recovery technologies in the United States to be nearly $10 billion with the creation of nearly 40,000 direct and indirect U.S. jobs.

“We can take advantage of this huge economic opportunity all while doing the right thing to stem this environmental flow. I'm optimistic and am really excited about what might be possible in the next 10 years.”