My last blog focused on the seemingly insurmountable marine plastics problem. Regardless of political bent, there is consensus it’s a hideous issue, and as a race we humans expend a great deal of time and energy trying to collect it, whether through volunteer days to gather up the never-ending stream that washes ashore, or devising clever ways to marshal it out of our waters – hopefully before it harms our marine life.

There is also a great deal of chatter around devising new types of plastic that are less harmful when exposed to the environment. I’m all for channeling our brain power into developing less harmful materials, plastic or otherwise, but one, that implies at least a tacit permission to not be more mindful of our disposal habits, and two, it doesn’t do anything toward collecting the mess already created.

And I believe we need to spend a lot of time discussing the collection of plastics. As in, what do we do with it once we’ve amassed it from the waters?

The ruins of recycling

A few months back I wrote a piece on “the power of waste.” I referenced how civilizations long ago learned the value of reuse and recycling, primarily out of a supply and economic necessity.

When supply no longer became an issue, we became experts at creating waste. Our recycling efforts, while admirable, were more desperate than deliberate, in a panicked attempt to stymie the creation of Earth as a great wasteland.

To our credit, the recycling movement largely caught on and took hold. You may not realize how difficult it is to create behavior change among our species; if not legislated, it has to be voluntary, and we’re generally adverse to changing habits, particularly without incentives. The easier recycling got with its dedicated bins and curbside collection, the more we Americans climbed on board – and were even willing to pay for it!

But we underestimated our penchant for creating waste. It’s almost as though we grew increasingly careless about “one-off” product uses of recyclable products because we now had an easier path out the front door to the recycling bin in which to dump those products!

Talk about irony.

America’s problem goes global

Many Americans with those handy recycling bins had, and have, the impression that their plastic materials were being transformed into new products. In reality, the value of these materials began to drop as the supply outpaced demand, so as a nation we began shipping much of this gathered material overseas – often to the poorest countries with lax labor laws and environmental supports. Almost two years ago, China banned most plastics from the U.S. Other countries became so inundated with our waste that mismanagement – meaning unregulated and unfettered disposal – meant U.S. plastics simply ended up in foreign landfills, or incinerated with little to no regard for air quality issues.

Our collective good intentions ended up creating more negatives than positives.

From collection to conversion

What’s the answer? Well, what if you could convert this plastic to biofuel and redeploy its value to create energy, using it in engines and in power plants?

This conversion characterizes a “circular economy.” It’s where we should be headed – not just in the U.S., but everywhere on this planet.

And it’s no longer a “what if” scenario.

In my next blog we’ll look at handling the types of waste products that are used in this conversion, so that we can make collection count!