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Let’s talk about: the plastic age / with Josef Jančář

Michael Londesborough: Today’s guest is Professor Josef Jančář the Brno University of Technology. He is a specialist on advanced polymer systems. Professor, we live in a polymer age. Is it coming to an end?

Josef Jančář: Definitely not. We can call our age the ‘plastic age’ because plastics have given us many new opportunities and solved many problems that human kind was facing. However, just like any material, they create some problems which we have to deal with. But in no case is it the end of the plastic age.

ML: Can you be a little bit more specific… what have plastics and polymers given us?

JJ: These materials are generally lightweight, relatively cheap and very versatile. They can be easily processed at low temperatures; most can be reprocessed and generally can be produced in large quantities. They’ve brought with them a new era in packaging, introduced new possibilities in dentistry, surgery, plastic surgery, construction and transportation. Vehicles need to be lightweight- plastics provide that. 35% of automobile density is plastic. That will only increase with the introduction of electro-mobility.

ML: Let’s talk more about single use plastics. Many of which are used in packaging, which you mentioned briefly. Surely we could package with paper bags instead of plastic, use glass bottles instead of plastic ones. Why don’t we?

JJ: Plastics are generally inert against the environment, which means that they can protect content from bacteria, gases and so forth. That’s why we use them instead of paper, for example, in food packaging. They extend the food’s lifespan; keep it fresh longer and so on. There are studies showing that replacing plastic food packaging with paper would increase the amount of food waste by 30% - a huge amount of spoiled food. On the other hand, there is a lot of unnecessary packaging. It may be very good for food hygiene, but it creates a lot of hard to recycle plastic waste.

ML: So, there’s a clear advantage in the longevity of food products. We can keep food for longer periods and therefore reduce food waste, which as you highlighted is a significant pollution aspect for our global economy. On the other hand, we generate a new waste material- the plastics that remain. Why do we just throw it away? Surely as a scientist you understand the inherent value these materials have. What are we doing wrong? What could we do better?

JJ: The answer is not so simple. Most of this plastic packaging is so cheap that we don’t appreciate the value in it. A lot of it also ends up in municipal waste because we don’t have the means to recycle it in our homes.

ML: And of course, there are different types of plastics. It’s not just one material- there are several different polymers which we use in plastic materials. In your opinion, from the supply side, should we limit the number of plastics we are using?

JJ: One reason for using a wide variety of plastics is that different packaged products require distinct packaging properties.

However, some polymers, for example polypropylene, can be modified by additives, both organic and inorganic to provide a wide range of properties for use in a wide range of products. Definitely one way to reduce plastic waste would be to reduce the number of polymers used in single use applications.

ML: In your opinion, are we spending enough resources and time on the research necessary to achieve this?

JJ: As scientists, we never have enough money for research, so I’m not quite sure about that. There has to be a demand for this type of research. It seems to be getting stronger, but the funding is not sufficient for multiple reasons. One is that most of the funding agencies are looking for original results which are publishable in high impact journals. Research into recycling is applied research, so it doesn’t get the needed response.

ML: I would argue that the public has already entered that phase. There are many articles written in today’s newspapers, so much social information regarding the levels of plastic waste. Presumably, the governments must react to that and it seems sensible to try and promote that kind of research at institutions like the one where you work.

JJ: We are expecting it and are ready to react. There is, however, typically a time lag between releasing newspaper articles and hearing politician proclamations to when real action begins to be taken, especially before a funding system gets established.   

ML: If I were a global funding body and gave you an unlimited number of resources, an unlimited blank check for as much money as you need along with a mandate to clean up our oceans, what would you do?

JJ: I am not quite sure if I can answer comprehensively. But, if we look at where the plastic waste ends up, in our oceans, we begin to get an idea. Oceans are fed by rivers, meaning the waste comes from rivers. It’s well known that most of it comes from 10 rivers. We need to look at what’s going on around these rivers that so much plastic waste ends up in their streams. Perhaps we should focus on developing sustainable technologies which will enable them to turn this plastic waste into products, which the rest of society can accept. That could solve some of their societal problems as well as plastic waste. At least it will limit impact on the oceans.

ML: It’s encouraging to hear that the majority of plastic waste in our waterways is from just 10 rivers, as you said. 8 located in the Far East, two in Africa. It seems like this is a problem we could solve. From listening to you, the first step is to find some sort of political consensus to be able to contact these countries and work out how we can help each other to solve the problem. Is the technology there?

JJ: I believe so. A lot of existing technologies could also work in developing countries.

ML: Let’s say we are able to extract all of this plastic waste. What do we do with it?

JJ: There is also no easy answer for that. Recycling involves several steps, the most complicated of which is separation. Plastic waste contains polyethylene, polypropylene, PVC, PET, and many other polymers of a different chemical nature. This means that the temperatures under which they can be processed or they degrade varies, rendering the separation a very expensive process, because their densities are very close to each other, making separations difficult. Secondly, a lot of them contain additives such as pigment, labels and so on. Separating these elements to use as feedstock becomes very difficult. Furthermore, the resulting product is a lower quality than virgin material, which is also cheaper as it does not require so many expensive procedures. Perhaps as a first step, some type of subsidy would help with recycling, but that’s not a sustainable solution.

ML:  Presumably however, sooner or later something of that measure has to be done.  If we allow our system to just accumulate without closing the loop and at least somehow get that circular motion to come back into it then we’re just going to end up kicking the can down the road.

JJ: I think that it will happen. The European Commission has already put forth directives which they are trying to reduce first of all the amount of plastic waste but also kind of push reuse, both in recycling or in energy related recycling. But it’s not that simple. I think that we should also think about whether we are not too spoiled and partly reduce our use of single use plastics.

ML: So we have to take greater responsibility. Linked with that is a better degree of education, we have to talk about these subjects, make sure that people do have an understanding of what polymers and plastics are really about, what advantages they bring and what are the associated problems we have to collectively resolve.

Let’s look into the future. You are working on research in advanced polymer systems. Where will these polymers help us in the future?

JJ: There are multiple areas where lightweight materials and polymers will have a very important use in the future. Recently, for example, we worked on a group of materials which is called meta-materials, which possess very unusual properties. We can manipulate their acoustic absorption and thus create, for example, sound insulators as thin as a sheet of paper. Their behavior is mechanically non-reciprocal, meaning that when you push one side of this material, the other side shrinks instead of expanding. They can be used for collecting and harvest mechanical energy. I assume that plastics have an excellent future. We must, however, educate the public that plastic are not only plastic bags in a supermarket; they are contact lenses, they are artificial valves in heart surgery and are becoming an increasing part of electro-mobiles and so on.

ML: There’s also a lot of talk about artificial intelligence at the moments. We are augmenting our own capabilities with technological devices. However, the speed at which we communicate with them is limited by the speed of our thumb so we’re looking for ways to get more direct communication with our devices. Do polymers offer hope for the future in that respect?

JJ: A huge part of electronic devices is indeed plastic, but in terms of AI, we are concerned with quantum computers. Those will probably be constructed using single molecules with multiple segments, providing stream on photon hair. Their information transmission capabilities are much better than that of current semi-conductors.

ML: In the future, will the natural and the synthetic live together in harmony?

JJ: It will depend on humankind, because we control this relationship. I believe that even without a huge environmental shock we find the balance between the synthetic and the natural.