The Wall Street Journal

Plastic: The Scourge of Cities Becomes a Resource

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Plastic represents one of the biggest waste challenges for cities in the future. The Wall Street Journal examines the new technologies that could revolutionize our conception of waste. Photo illustration: Drew Evans/The Wall Street Journal


When the Indian government first imposed a lockdown against the coronavirus outbreak in March 2020, tens of millions of migrants fled the cities in which they worked as their food and incomes dried up.
Most travelled on foot, often thousands of kilometres, with many dying along the way.
One teenage girl hit the headlines for ferrying her injured father back home on the back of her bicycle.
Here is how she and some other migrants are faring months later.

Al Jazeera's Elizabeth Puranam reports from New Delhi, India.
Renowned Beverly Hills plastic surgeon Dr. Payman Simoni has died from COVID-19, which he reportedly caught from a patient while performing a lip enhancement. Now some are asking: Should plastic surgery be allowed in Los Angeles as the city's cases skyrocket? Inside Edition was with Simoni back in May, for the return of cosmetic surgery after they were initially put on hold at the beginning of the pandemic. At the time, the doctor assured us that every precaution was being taken.
CGTN's Rachelle Akuffo spoke to Joseph Williams, Senior News Editor with U.S. News and World Report, about how the pandemic has shaped the lives of minority groups.
Universities in the U.S. have a long tradition of welcoming international students. But this year will be different because of the coronavirus pandemic. According to a report by the Institute of International Education, the enrollment of foreign students at U.S. higher education institutions was down by almost half this fall. Some 90 percent of campuses reported that foreign students deferred attendance. CGTN's Ediz Tiyansan reports.

… show captions ↓
(dramatic music)
- Plastic recycling is in a state of crisis.
- Less than 10% is actually recycled.
- [Narrator] Every day, nearly 1,000,000 tons
of plastic is created.
The current and only process
of mechanical recycling is failing.
- There's all kinds of plastic streams
we know we can't sort.
There's an enormous amount of pressure
on the industry as a whole
to come up with real solutions.
- [Narrator] One of these solutions
may be in Silicon Valley.
- We're gonna be producing useful chemicals
from our plastic waste in the future.
We will solve this problem.
(dramatic music)
(dramatic music) (machines whirring)
- Plastics are cheap to produce.
They're cheap for consumers to buy it,
but once it's thrown away,
it's just left to the city authorities
to pick up, to transport, to sell.
- [Narrator] As recycling exists today,
sorting the material is the first step.
- So we receive this mixture of material,
and it goes through a whole series of processing steps
that include magnets, shredders, optical sorters,
and so forth, each of which is designed
to segregate material.
(machines roaring)
We call this film plastic,
what most people would think of as plastic bags.
Nobody has the ability to take this,
so this will go to a landfill.
- [Narrator] Hundreds of types of plastic exist,
but mechanically sorting the material is so expensive,
only a few plastics are worth selling.
- So these are our PET bales.
They may not look pretty,
but they are basically 98% PET.
Looks like here might be a little bit of a carton.
- [Narrator] These bales go to another facility
to be chopped and washed.
If the plastic is clear and clean,
it can be paired with virgin material for new products.
If it's not, it get downgraded
into plastic that goes into the trash.
Endless recycling of plastic has never existed,
but that could soon change.
- The biggest problem is mechanical recycling
is not very effective.
It's a lot harder than most people think.
- [Narrator] After 30 years of experience
making semiconductors,
IBM discovered the building blocks
of the most widely-produced plastic in the world,
PET, also know as polyester.
- What would happen if you can take
this mixed waste stream and selectively remove
the polyester and really generate a circular economy?
- [Narrator] Inside this IBM research facility,
Bob Allen and his team invented a way
to chemically remove plastic
from highly contaminated waste streams,
an impossible task for our current mechanical method.
The process starts with a catalyst
to break down the plastic.
Then, they cook it at a high temperature
like a pressure cooker.
- In the reactor,
it only goes after the PET molecules,
grabs 'em, and chews 'em up like Pac Man,
just chews 'em up.
- [Narrator] The contaminants are then filtered out
through a proprietary purification process.
- You will see something that looks
one heck of a lot like Breaking Bad.
- [Narrator] It cools and solidifies.
The powder is then converted
into what IBM sees as plastic gold.
- This is real, live PET.
- [Narrator] Plastic ready for manufacturing.
IBM's research is complete,
but the process is too expensive.
- Really the challenge is seeing
how inexpensive you can make this process.
Our starting material is waste.
That's a very, very attractive feed stock.
We stand a real good chance of being competitive
to petrochemically-based PET.
- [Narrator] Allen and his team are consulting
with major plastics manufacturers
and cities around the world
to make their research into a reality.
(dramatic music) (plastic pieces rustling)
- [Bob] I'm willing to bet money in five to 10 years,
waste plastic will be seen as a renewable resource.
- [Narrator] But IBM isn't the only blue chip company
betting on chemical recycling.
Chevron and Proctor & Gamble are working
on alternative solutions for other plastics,
and scientists at Loop Industries are testing
a recycling process for some major bottle manufacturers.
While investment is increasing,
chemical recycling has yet to be put to work.
- Where a lot of technologies have failed
is when they've gone from that lab scale
where they have incredibly good control
over the feed stock to commercial scale
where it's not that they can't
keep up with the volume
but they can't keep up with the fact
that all of a sudden,
they come across a coat hanger or a sneaker.
It's not a homogenous product we produce.
- [Narrator] Some environmental scientists
have serious doubts about the viability of the process.
- So I think a lot of people ask
is chemical recycling just something
that's gonna allow us to carry on with business as usual?
Maybe we need to focus more on actually
reducing or eliminating plastic use.
We don't know much about the costs.
I mean, we're seeing these great ideas,
but while oil and gas prices are low,
it looks very unrealistic.
- [Narrator] Even if chemical recycling
makes discarded plastic a resource,
there will always be a need for waste infrastructure.
(dramatic music)
- [Kate] The biggest problem in the future
is that most wastes are gonna be now generated
in the growing cities in the global south,
and they do not have anything like
the same waste infrastructure that we do.
- I think there's a lot of incentive
to put whatever resources necessary
to make that successful.
- [Narrator] With or without these innovations,
issues of waste generation and management
will be key for the success of cities
in the decades to come.
(dramatic music)

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