Remember All The Disposable Stuff You Used When COVID-19 Hit? It Made

Plastic filled our lives during the pandemic, littering our world with N95 masks, take-out containers, and single-use grocery bags. While the world was fixated on the global health crisis, the plastic crisis only got worse. Plastic products like PPE and disposable packaging were marketed as tools in the fight against COVID-19.

In a new book, Plastic Unlimited, researcher Alice Mah says it didn’t have to be this way. (We published an excerpt of her book here.) She argues that plastic corporations knowingly pushed false claims about the benefits of plastic during the pandemic in order to increase sales. And as life returns to normal, she says it’s crucial for companies and consumers to dramatically cut down on plastic production.

In the years before the pandemic, consumers became increasingly worried about plastic, Mah says. In 2017 and 2018, stories about sea creatures dying from plastic pollution went viral, including a harrowing image of a turtle with a straw lodged up its nose. There was growing awareness about microplastics, tiny particles of plastic that end up in the food chain, harming our bodies. And given that the majority of disposable plastic ends up being incinerated, it also contributes to climate change. All of this led to a wave of activism that resulted in companies like Starbucks vowing to eliminate plastic straws and states like California and New York banning plastic bags.

This anti-plastic sentiment was so powerful that corporations took notice. “I noticed in my research with these petrochemical companies—these plastics companies—that there was a panic about how bad the public perception of plastics was and how they really needed to turn the narrative around,” Mah says. “I saw how they very rapidly organized to embrace a narrative around the circular economy and recyclability.”

But then, Mah says, the pandemic struck, which turned out to be a gift for the plastic industry. Companies were able to make the case that plastic was hygienic and could help keep the virus at bay, and lobbied to reverse plastic bag bans. But these claims weren’t true. There were peer reviewed studies that COVID-19 could survive on plastic surfaces for up to three days, longer than most other materials, including cardboard.

In 2020, Greenpeace published a research brief saying that the plastics industry had manipulated the media with misleading claims that disposable plastic goods were more sanitary than reusable ones, exploiting anxiety about the pandemic to churn out more products. But by then, consumers already felt confident that plastic could keep them safer. “At the time of the pandemic, you saw a resurgence of single-use plastics,” Mah says. “There was amnesia about the turtles with the straws up their nose.”

It wasn’t just PPE that flooded the market. It was also changes in our consumption during lockdown. As restaurants shut down, consumers turned to take-out, which comes in plastic containers, and e-commerce, which requires everything from bubble wrap to poly bags that wrap individual products. The nonprofit Oceana estimates that Amazon was responsible for 485 million pounds of packaging waste in 2019, a volume that would have increased by 38% in 2020 along with its increased sales.

Mah says that even she felt guilty about the volume of plastic that entered her home in the U.K. during the pandemic. And while it’s true that people in the U.K. and U.S. generate between 218 and 240 pounds of plastic a year, which is double the global average, it’s also true that consumers are trapped in a society where plastic is ubiquitous. It’s very hard to go to the grocery store and ask for your meat, cereal, or vegetables not to be packaged in plastic, for instance. “People are locked into supply chains and infrastructures, unable to simply opt out of plastic consumption,” she says.

So what’s the solution?  Consumers can—and should— work to reduce their personal plastic consumption, but Mah argues that we need global, systemic solutions to get plastic out of our lives. The answer isn’t recycling, which comes with its own environmental costs; instead, we need to eliminate plastic as much as possible.

In some ways, it’s worth thinking about plastic along the same lines as climate change, she says. One possible answer is for the United Nations to create an agreement similar to the Paris Climate Accord, but for plastic. A version of such a treaty is currently being discussed by the UN Environment Assembly, but it would take years to negotiate the complex details.

Governments must also play a role, because plastic corporations are unlikely to voluntarily reduce their own production. Legislators can pass outright bans on single-use plastics, which India did this month, forbidding the use of 19 plastic items like cups, straws, and ice-cream sticks. Governments can also hold companies accountable for the full lifecycle of their products, forcing them to pay for any pollution created when the item is thrown out. The European Union and Canada require plastic producers to pay for waste collection and management.

Ultimately, however, curbing plastic will mean redesigning almost every aspect of our lives. We will need to rethink the systems of food, shopping, transportation, logistics, public health, construction, and many other industries in order to fully excise plastic. This will mean moving away from our addiction to disposable products, and shifting toward durable, reusable goods.

“Plastic has been seen as a miracle material that can be transformed into almost anything,” May says. “It is cheap, but if you calculate all the costs—the people who die of toxic exposure, the loss of clean water, the impact on our ecosystems—it’s not really that cheap. I don’t think the solution is to come up with some other magical material, but to learn how to live without it.”

By:  Elizabeth Segran

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a senior staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

Source: Remember all the disposable stuff you used when COVID-19 hit? It made

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Plastic Recycling Doesn’t Work and Will Never Work

Americans support recycling. We do too. But although some materials can be effectively recycled and safely made from recycled content, plastics cannot. Plastic recycling does not work and will never work. The United States in 2021 had a dismal recycling rate of about 5 percent for post-consumer plastic waste, down from a high of 9.5 percent in 2014, when the U.S. exported millions of tons of plastic waste to China and counted it as recycled—even though much of it wasn’t.

Recycling in general can be an effective way to reclaim natural material resources. The U.S.’s high recycling rate of paper, 68 percent, proves this point. The problem with recycling plastic lies not with the concept or process but with the material itself. The first problem is that there are thousands of different plastics, each with its own composition and characteristics. They all include different chemical additives and colorants that cannot be recycled together, making it impossible to sort the trillions of pieces of plastics into separate types for processing.

For example, polyethylene terephthalate (PET#1) bottles cannot be recycled with PET#1 clamshells, which are a different PET#1 material, and green PET#1 bottles cannot be recycled with clear PET#1 bottles (which is why South Korea has outlawed colored PET#1 bottles.) High-density polyethylene (HDPE#2), polyvinyl chloride (PVC#3), low-density polyethylene (LDPE#4), polypropylene (PP#5), and polystyrene (PS#6) all must be separated for recycling.

Just one fast-food meal can involve many different types of single-use plastic, including PET#1, HDPE#2, LDPE#4, PP#5, and PS#6 cups, lids, clamshells, trays, bags, and cutlery, which cannot be recycled together. This is one of several reasons why plastic fast-food service items cannot be legitimately claimed as recyclable in the U.S.

Another problem is that the reprocessing of plastic waste—when possible at all—is wasteful. Plastic is flammable, and the risk of fires at plastic-recycling facilities affects neighboring communities—many of which are located in low-income communities or communities of color. Unlike metal and glass, plastics are not inert. Plastic products can include toxic additives and absorb chemicals, and are generally collected in curbside bins filled with possibly dangerous materials such as plastic pesticide containers.

According to a report published by the Canadian government, toxicity risks in recycled plastic prohibit “the vast majority of plastic products and packaging produced” from being recycled into food-grade packaging. Yet another problem is that plastic recycling is simply not economical. Recycled plastic costs more than new plastic because collecting, sorting, transporting, and reprocessing plastic waste is exorbitantly expensive. The petrochemical industry is rapidly expanding, which will further lower the cost of new plastic.

Despite this stark failure, the plastics industry has waged a decades-long campaign to perpetuate the myth that the material is recyclable. This campaign is reminiscent of the tobacco industry’s efforts to convince smokers that filtered cigarettes are healthier than unfiltered cigarettes. Conventional mechanical recycling, in which plastic waste is ground up and melted, has been around for many decades. Now the plastics industry is touting the benefits of so-called chemical recycling— in which plastic waste is broken down using high heat or more chemicals and turned into a low-quality fossil fuel.

In 2018, Dow Chemical claimed that the Renewlogy chemical-recycling plant in Salt Lake City was able to reprocess mixed plastic waste from Boise, Idaho, households through the “Hefty EnergyBag” program and turn it into diesel fuel. As Reuters exposed in a 2021 investigation, however,  all the different types of plastic waste contaminated the pyrolysis process. Today, Boise burns its mixed plastic waste in cement kilns, resulting in climate-warming carbon emissions. This well-documented Renewlogy failure has not stopped the plastics industry from continuing to claim that chemical recycling works for “mixed plastics.”

Chemical recycling is not viable. It has failed and will continue to fail for the same down-to-earth, real-world reasons that the conventional mechanical recycling of plastics has consistently failed. Worse yet, its toxic emissions could cause new harm to our environment, climate, and health. We’re not making a case for despair. Just the opposite. We need the facts so that individuals and policy makers can take concrete action. Proven solutions to the U.S.’s plastic-waste and pollution problems exist and can be quickly replicated across the country.

These solutions include enacting bans on single-use plastic bags and unrecyclable single-use plastic food-service products, ensuring widespread access to water-refilling stations, installing dishwashing equipment in schools to allow students to eat food on real dishes rather than single-use plastics, and switching Meals on Wheels and other meal-delivery programs from disposables to reusable dishware. If the plastics industry is following the tobacco industry’s playbook, it may never admit to the failure of plastics recycling. Although we may not be able to stop them from trying to fool us, we can pass effective laws to make real progress.

Single-use-plastic bans reduce waste, save taxpayer money spent on disposal and cleanup, and reduce plastic pollution in the environment. Consumers can put pressure on companies to stop filling store shelves with single-use plastics by not buying them and instead choosing reusables and products in better packaging. And we should all keep recycling our paper, boxes, cans, and glass, because that actually works.

Source: Plastic Recycling Doesn’t Work and Will Never Work – Vigour Times

More contents:

Eco-friendly Plastics Made From Sugars Boast “Unprecedented” Properties

The search for sustainable alternatives to common plastics has researchers investigating how their building blocks can be sourced from places other than petroleum, and for scientists behind a promising new study, this has led them straight to the sweet stuff.

The team has produced a new form of plastic with “unprecedented” mechanical properties that are maintained throughout standard recycling processes, and managed to do so using sugar-derived materials as the starting point.

The breakthrough comes from scientists at the University of Birmingham in the UK and Duke University in the US, who in their pursuit of more sustainable plastics turned to sugar alcohols. These organic compounds carry a similar chemical structure to the sugars they’re derived from, which the scientists found can bring some unique benefits to the production of plastic.

The two compounds in question are isoidide and isomannide, which both feature rigid rings of atoms that the scientists were able to use as building blocks for a new family of polymers. The polymer based on isoidide featured a stiffness and malleability like that of typical plastics, and strength comparable to high-grade engineering plastics.

The polymer made from isomannide, meanwhile, had similar strength and toughness, but with a high degree of elasticity that allowed it to recover its shape after deformation. The characteristics of both were maintained after being subjected to the common recycling methods of pulverization and thermal processing.

The team used computer modeling to study how the unique spatial arrangement of atoms within the compounds afford them these different properties, a discipline known as stereochemistry. As a next step, the scientists created plastics using both building blocks, which enabled them to tune the mechanical properties and degradation rates, independently of one another.

This raises the prospect of creating sustainable plastics with desired degradation rates, without impacting on their mechanical performance. Our findings really demonstrate how stereochemistry can be used as a central theme to design sustainable materials with what truly are unprecedented mechanical properties,” said Duke University professor Dr Matthew Becker.

The team has filed a patent application for the technology and is on the hunt for industrial partners to help commercialize it. The hope is that the sugar-based plastics can offer a more sustainable option not just in terms of production, but also their disposal, with petroleum-based plastics sometimes taking centuries to break down.

By: Nick Lavars

Nick has been writing and editing at New Atlas for over six years, where he has covered everything from distant space probes to self-driving cars to oddball animal science. He previously spent time at The Conversation, Mashable and The Santiago Times, earning a Masters degree in communications from Melbourne’s RMIT University along the way.

Source: Eco-friendly plastics made from sugars boast “unprecedented” properties

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The Race To Develop Plastic-Eating Bacteria

In March 2016, scientists in Japan published an extraordinary finding. After scooping up some sludge from outside a bottle recycling facility in Osaka, they discovered bacteria which had developed the ability to decompose, or “eat,” plastic.

The bacteria, Ideonella sakaiensis, was only able to eat a particular kind of plastic called PET, from which bottles are commonly made, and it could not do so nearly fast enough to mitigate the tens of millions of tons of plastic waste that enter the environment every year.

Still, this and a series of other breakthroughs in recent years mean it could one day be possible to build industrial-scale facilities where enzymes chomp on piles of landfill-bound plastic, or even to spray them on the mountains of plastic that accumulate in the ocean or in rivers.

These advances are timely. By vastly increasing our use of single-use plastics such as masks and takeaway boxes, the Covid-19 pandemic has focused attention on the world’s plastic waste crisis. Earth is on track to have as much plastic in the ocean as fish by weight by 2050, according to one estimate.

However, experts caution that large-scale commercial use of plastic-eating microorganisms is still years away, while their potential release in the environment, even if practical, could create more issues than it solves.

Overcoming an evolutionary barrier

The scientists working to find and develop plastic-eating organisms must contend with a basic reality: evolution. Microbes have had millions of years to learn how to biodegrade organic matter such as fruits and tree bark. They have had barely any time at all to learn to decompose plastics, which did not exist on Earth at any scale before roughly 1950.

“Seaweed has been around for hundreds of millions of years, so there is a variety of microbes and organisms that can break it down,” said Pierre-Yves Paslier, the co-founder of a British company, Notpla, that is using seaweed and other plants to make films and coatings that could replace some types of plastic packaging. By contrast plastic is very new, he said.

Still, recent discoveries of plastic-eating microorganisms show that evolution is already getting to work. A year after the 2016 discovery of Ideonella sakaiensis in Osaka, scientists reported a fungus able to degrade plastic at a waste disposal site in Islamabad, Pakistan. In 2017 a biology student at Reed College in Oregon analyzed samples from an oil site near her home in Houston, Texas, and found they contained plastic-eating bacteria. In March 2020, German scientists discovered strains of bacteria capable of degrading polyurethane plastic after collecting soil from a brittle plastic waste site in Leipzig.

In order to make any of these naturally-occurring bacteria useful, they must be bioengineered to degrade plastic hundreds or thousands of times faster. Scientists have enjoyed some breakthroughs here, too. In 2018 scientists in the U.K. and U.S. modified bacteria so that they could begin breaking down plastic in a matter of days. In October 2020 the process was improved further by combining the two different plastic-eating enzymes that the bacteria produced into one “super enzyme.”

The first large-scale commercial applications are still years away, but within sight. Carbios, a French firm, could break ground in coming months on a demonstration plant that will be able to enzymatically biodegrade PET plastic.

This could help companies such as PepsiCo and Nestle, with whom Carbios is partnering, achieve longstanding goals of incorporating large amounts of recycled material back into their products. They’ve so far failed to succeed because there has never been a way to sufficiently break down plastic back into more fundamental materials. (Because of this, most plastic that is recycled is only ever used to make lower-quality items, such as carpets, and likely won’t ever be recycled again.)

“Without new technologies, it’s impossible for them to meet their goals. It’s just impossible,” said Martin Stephan, deputy CEO of Carbios.

Besides plastic-eating bacteria, some scientists have speculated that it may be possible to use nanomaterials to decompose plastic into water and carbon dioxide. One 2019 study in the journal Matter demonstrated the use of “magnetic spring-like carbon nanotubes” to biodegrade microplastics into carbon dioxide and water.

The challenges ahead

Even if these new technologies are one day deployed at scale, they would still face major limitations and could even be dangerous, experts caution.

Of the seven major commercial types of plastic, the plastic-eating enzyme at the heart of several of the recent breakthroughs has only been shown to digest one, PET. Other plastics, such as HDPE, used to make harder materials such as shampoo bottles or pipes, could prove more difficult to biodegrade using bacteria.

Even if one day it becomes possible to mass produce bacteria that can be sprayed onto piles of plastic waste, such an approach could be dangerous. Biodegrading the polymers that comprise plastic risks releasing chemical additives that are normally stored up safely inside the un-degraded plastic.

Others point out that there are potential unknown side-effects of releasing genetically engineered microorganisms into nature. “Since most likely genetically engineered microorganisms would be needed, they cannot be released uncontrolled into the environment,” said Wolfgang Zimmerman, a scientist at the University of Leipzig who studies biocatalysis.

Similar issues constrain the potential use of nanomaterials. Nicole Grobert, a nanomaterials scientist at Oxford University, said that the tiny scales involved in nanotechnology mean that widespread use of new materials would “add to the problem in ways that could result in yet greater challenges.”

The best way to beat the plastic waste crisis, experts say, is by switching to reusable alternatives, such as Notpla’s seaweed-derived materials, ensuring that non-recyclable plastic waste ends up in a landfill rather than in the environment, and using biodegradable materials where possible.

Judith Enck, a former regional Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator in the Obama administration and the president of Beyond Plastics, a non-profit based in Vermont, pointed to the gradual spread of bans on single-use plastics around the world, from India to China to the EU, U.K. and a number of U.S. states from New York to California.

These are signs of progress, she said, although more and tougher policies are needed. “We can’t wait for a big breakthrough.”

Update: This story has been updated to clarify the timing of a discovery of plastic-eating bacteria by a Reed College student.

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I cover the energy industry, focusing on climate and green tech. Formerly I covered oil markets for commodities publication Argus Media. My writing has appeared in The Economist, among other publications.

Source: The Race To Develop Plastic-Eating Bacteria

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Related Contents:

Arthur, Courtney; Baker, Joel; Bamford, Holly (2009). “Proceedings of the International Research Workshop on the Occurrence, Effects and Fate of Microplastic Marine Debris” (PDF). NOAA Technical Memorandum.

The World’s Newest Call Center Billionaire

Meet the world’s newest call center billionaire. Laurent Junique is quite the globe-trotter: He’s a French citizen, his company is based in Singapore and he just listed that company, TDCX Inc., on the New York Stock Exchange last week.

Junique, TDCX’s 55-year-old founder and CEO, also just joined the billionaire ranks: Junique’s 87% stake in the firm is now worth $3 billion, thanks to a 34% rise in TDCX shares since the IPO on October 1—an offering that raised nearly $350 million for the company.

Started in 1995 in Singapore as Teledirect, an outsourced call center that handled calls, emails and faxes for a variety of clients, the company rebranded as TDCX in 2019 to reflect its expansion into a range of services including content moderation, marketing and e-commerce support. (CX is short for “customer experience” in the customer service industry.)

TDCX reported a $64 million net profit on $323 million sales in 2020, an improvement from the $54 million profit and $242 million in revenues it recorded in 2019. That growth came in part due to greater use of the services that TDCX offers, including tools that help companies improve the performance of employees working from home. Still, TDCX is highly dependent on two clients—Facebook and Airbnb—which collectively accounted for 62% of sales in 2020.

“Our successful listing reflects the world-class company that we have built and our position as the go-to partner for transformative digital customer experience services,” Junique said in a statement on the day of the IPO. “We are grateful for the support of our clients, many of whom are global technology companies that are fuelling the growth of the digital economy.”

Junique is the second call center billionaire that Forbes has tracked. The first, Kenneth Tuchman, founded Englewood, Colorado-based TTEC Holdings (formerly called TeleTech), in 1982; at nearly $2 billion, the firm had about six times the revenues of TDCX last year. Tuchman first became a billionaire in 2007. Several Indian billionaires, including HCL Technologies cofounder Shiv Nadar and Wipro’s former chairman Azim Premji, offer call centers as some of the services their firms provide.

Junique will maintain an iron grip on TDCX as a public company, controlling all of the firm’s Class B shares, which make up more than 86% of the firm’s equity and represent 98.5% of voting power. He owns those shares through Transformative Investments Pte Ltd, a company based in the Cayman Islands that is entirely owned—according to public filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission—by a trust established for the benefit of Junique and his family. While its headquarters are in Singapore, TDCX has also been incorporated in the Cayman Islands since April 2020; prior to the IPO, the firm was controlled by Junique through a Caymans-based holding company. A spokesperson for TDCX declined to comment.

Before launching TDCX as a 29-year-old in 1995, the French native cut his teeth studying advertising at the École Supérieure de Publicité in Paris and business administration at the nearby École Supérieure Internationale d’Administration des Entreprises, graduating in 1989. After a two-year stint at consumer goods giant Unilever, Junique—who had reportedly been cooking up business ideas since he was a child, including a glass recycling proposal he came up with at age 13—decided he wanted a more international career, but struggled to find a gig as a young graduate with little experience.

Armed with a suitcase and just enough cash to get by, he decamped to Singapore in 1995 to try his luck on the other side of the planet. Singapore offered a strategic location as a modern, English-speaking city at the heart of fast-growing Southeast Asia, and Junique started a call center called Teledirect aimed at businesses looking to cut costs and outsource customer service. Soon enough, Junique scored the firm’s first big client, an American credit card firm based in Singapore.

Two years later, in 1997, Junique sold a 40% stake in Teledirect to London-based advertising giant WPP for an undisclosed amount. Since then, TDCX expanded beyond call centers and now has offices in 11 countries across three continents, including locations in China, Japan and India. In 2018, Junique bought back WPP’s 40% stake in the call center business for about $28 million. Three years of growth later, the company now has a market capitalization of $3.5 billion.

With 2020 marking a record year for TDCX, Junique is hoping that the Covid-induced transition away from offices has made the firm’s products more necessary for its clients. “As consumers live more and more of their lives online, the expectation for things to be done simply, conveniently and on-demand will only increase,” Junique said in a statement.

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Source: The World’s Newest Call Center Billionaire

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Related Contents:

“BBC Three – The Call Centre, Series 1”. Bbc.co.uk. 2013-12-10. Retrieved 2017-12-10.

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