By Mark Peterson
Sustainability pursuits don’t exist in vacuum and despite our hopes and dreams they are still subject to Newton’s 3rd law of Physics. We sometimes refer to this law loosely as action-reaction, where the force exerted is the action and the force experienced as a consequence is the reaction. In many cases the variables are hard to pin down and we push somewhere, hoping we have executed the right action, only to find out the reaction isn’t the outcome we anticipated.
Take for example lithium batteries. They are relatively low maintenance, have a very low self-discharge, can be made small enough to work in many smaller electronic devices. They have the very real potential to help store energy from a green power grid. But they also are prone to catch fire or explode if damaged – not good! Other unfortunate realities include a relatively short life, water consumption in manufacturing and environmental degradation during the lithium extraction process and finally improper disposal of the ever increasing number of electronic devices they power.
Lately, like many of you, the amount of plastics in our world and the ever increasing problem of reusing, recycling or disposing of them has been top of my mind. Plastics are everywhere and some are integral to the functioning of our modern society and offer great benefits especially for crucial services like health care. Yet, we are awash in plastics literally and figuratively from the excess use of plastics that make no sense like the massive blister packaging for a small container of dental floss. Sadly, there seem to be no end in sight, and while the issue is getting a lot of media play, I am somewhat cynical in my outlook as there seems to be precious too few creative policies to stem the tide.
Yet, I hold out hope that governments, entrepreneurs and consumers will begin to realize that we need to change our behaviors significantly. Efforts must go beyond plastic straw and grocery bag bans. We need to do something big and soon. Recently, Waste Management the largest waste hauler company in the United States committed to no longer sending their plastics collected for recycling overseas to developing countries with suspect environmental policies that could result in plastics littered into our environment. While this is a laudable action, the reaction is that this added influx (or surplus) of plastics threatens to completely overwhelm any domestic recycling capacity and will most certainly result in plastics collected in the USA for recycling will either be landfilled or incinerated.
This is why we must look for other actions that result in a more positive reaction. An example of an innovative use of recycled plastic is for use in road paving where plastics can replace some of the bitumen that is used as a binder for the asphalt. While the technology is in its infancy there are some encouraging signs that incorporating recycled plastics for road construction can help divert plastics from landfill and put them to beneficial use rather than burying them in the ground where it will remain for centuries to come. It remains to be seen if the action to use recycled plastics in roads yields the positive reactions we are hoping for. But, I’m encouraged the people around the world that have much more knowledge and expertise than I, are being creative and working hard to solve the complex conundrums our modern society is currently facing.