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Protect Plastics Using Innovative Funds – IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute

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Protect Plastics Using Innovative Funds - IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute

TK Arun

Plastics could, likewise, be broken down into constituent chemicals that are combined as desired to produce useful things. The ability to edit genes would help mobilise nature in this cause as well. Bacteria and viruses could ingest one set of chemicals that humanity wants to eliminate and extrude another set of chemicals, of practical value.

Pay enough to recover all used plastics, and invent new chemistry to decompose them. Few would dispute that the solution to obesity is not to ban food. Why, then, is it so hard to accept that the way to end plastic pollution is not to ban plastic, in its entirety or in bits and pieces?

Ban some additives that cause exceptional harm, such as the one that makes tyre dust, when it finally reaches the ocean, toxic to some species of fish. But let us keep using plastics, some of the most versatile, life-enriching and empowering materials produced by human ingenuity, while getting rid of the pollution, by designing every stage of its life to subserve the goal of eliminating harm in its afterlife.

Additives can make some kinds of plastic biodegradable. Mandate their addition to the manufacturing process of such materials. It may raise the cost a bit. But compared to the avoided cost of the harm plastic does when it lasts in the environment as long as the pyramids of Egypt, that would be cheap.

India’s use of plastic in contemporary times

Right now, in India, a dispute is on between the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) and makers of biodegradable plastic, about the efficacy of the additives available in the market. These additives meet the standards in the US and the EU.

But since India is trying to fix standards for them for the first time – it has not finalised them but is unwilling to rely on Western standards – a bunch of small-scale producers of plastic products are in a quandary. The chemistry of hydrocarbons is unlikely to change from the US or Europe to India. So, Indian standard-setters should be willing to adopt US or European standards till they finalise their own.

What of the plastics that cannot be rendered biodegradable using additives? The conventional answer is to recycle what can be recycled or to incinerate the rest, with the biggest challenge identified in collecting the used material for reuse in whatever fashion.

It is estimated that of the 430 million tonnes of plastic produced every year, only about 10% is recovered for processing. So, there are two vital areas of challenge:
Recover for processing the entirety of the plastic produced.
Create new processes for breaking down the plastic that cannot be reused or recycled.

Let’s take up the second challenge first. This is related to finding solutions for the climate crisis. The sustainable solution to containing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere below the level that would keep the average global surface temperature from rising more than 1.5° C above pre-industrial times is to remove CO2 from the atmosphere and to find alternate uses for that captured CO2.

Right now, the primary use for CO2 is to give soda or beer its fizz, besides pumping it into oil wells to produce yet more oil. Producing and consuming enough beer to use up some 45 billion metric tonnes of CO2 a year may have fleeting appeal in this summer heat, but we know that is no solution. Pumping CO2 into oil wells to produce more oil is an option that would lose its relevance when oil use comes down drastically.

Other uses have to be found for CO2. This calls for altogether new chemical and biological processes to convert CO2 into the starting molecule for producing a range of things from carbon fibre and graphene to the entire range of petrochemicals that are today derived from crude oil. Once humanity starts mining the air for their raw material for producing plastics and synthetics, air rid of CO2 becomes a byproduct, just as atmospheric CO2 is a by-product of conventional economic activity.

Is this merely wishful thinking? The time when Captain Kirk, Flash Gordon and Dick Tracy had access to mobile telephony alone. Technology has made possible many things that worked only in science fiction. And technology keeps advancing.

Today, we celebrate early success in transmitting electricity generated from solar arrays in space, where there is neither night nor cloud cover, down to the ground as microwave energy. Artificial intelligence (AI) makes light work of predicting the 3D shapes of complex proteins. This would enable the creation of new chemistry that would allow the conversion of CO2, through a sequence of chemical reactions, to morph into useful hydrocarbons, including plastics and aviation fuel.

Plastics could, likewise, be broken down into constituent chemicals that are combined as desired to produce useful things. The ability to edit genes would help mobilise nature in this cause as well. Bacteria and viruses could ingest one set of chemicals that humanity wants to eliminate and extrude another set of chemicals, of practical value.

This will call for serious research, and proportionately serious funding, in particular for climate tech startups. The money must be found. Taxation of fuels and plastics is one source. Taxation of virgin plastic can raise the money needed to make procurement of every kg of plastic waste economically attractive. The increase in the cost of plastic will incentivise economic use, as well. That tax can go into a fund that would part-finance the procurement of plastic waste, to ensure that the process of scavenging attracts serious business focus.

Innovation, imagination and injection of sufficient funds can and must solve the problems of plastic pollution and climate change. Red queens with their zealous dislike of heads, or Kaikeyis with a bias towards bans and banishments, are not required.

The article was first published in The Economic Times as Tackling Plastic Pollution and Climate Change through Innovation and Injection of Sufficient Funds on June 6, 2023.

Read more by the author: Burnishing the sheen of AT1 Bonds.

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