A new chemical process can liquify plastic. The next challenge? Creating a machine that can recycle the sludge on an industrial scale.
One single-use plastic bag takes at least 450 years to degrade. Give Miranda Wang three hours and she can reduce ten of them into liquid.
Wang is the first to discover a chemical process that tackles the end-of-life of plastic. She first learned the scale of the problem in eighth grade with her friend, Jeanny Yao, when they visited a city waste recycling plant in Vancouver, Canada where they grew up. “That’s when we learnt that even plastics that are put into a curbside recycling bin end up being exported overseas in developing countries where they become ocean pollution,” she says.
Since the 1950s, 8.3 billion tons of plastic has been produced. It’s now found in toys, car parts, in donor organs and in the oceans. Because of the centuries-long degradation period, most of it still exists: 6.3 billion tons of it as waste. While many are trying to curb the inconceivably big problem of plastic pollution by collecting it from oceans and placing bans on certain products, Wang says it is commendable, but it is not enough: “If we can not just outlaw plastics altogether immediately, if we’re always going to produce this plastic, what do we do about it, how do we pragmatically handle it?”