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September 25, 2023

Can AI solve the plastic problem?

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Soft plastics

Can you imagine a world without plastic waste?

It could be coming sooner than we think, thanks to AI.

As we all know, plastic pollution is absolutely everywhere – in the soil, oceans, rivers and the air. It’s in all of us. This has happened within my lifetime.

Young people today don’t know a world without plastic.

When I was a child, there were no plastic bottles, no plastic bags, no plastic clothes, no food wrapped in plastic.

The baker came to our door with a wicker basket and loaves wrapped in white tissue paper.

The horse that drew his van waited patiently in the street, eating occasionally from a chaff bag hanging from a harness and breathing clouds of steam into the cool air.

The milkman delivered bottles of milk and picked up empties for washing and reusing. You could see from scratches on the sides of bottles that they had been used multiple times.

When my mother went shopping, she took a basket and fresh fruit and vegetables were put in paper bags, cheese was cut off a large block and wrapped in greaseproof paper. There was no supermarket with thousands of plastic-wrapped items.

Five years after Vance Packard wrote The Waste Makers, in 1960, on how the rapid growth of disposable consumer products was degrading the environment, society and the economy of the USA, I experienced what he was writing about, in a New York skyscraper.

My cousin took me for a meal in a cafeteria.

We took a tray each and picked up utensils and plates of food. After we’d finished, I wondered where we’d put the plates, cups and knives and forks for washing.

She opened a chute and said, ‘Tip it all down there.’ I was aghast enough for that memory to stay with me for nearly sixty years.

Zoom forward half a century, and Vance Packard’s nightmare has become reality. The entire planet is littered with apparently intractable waste.

Shoppers have been dutifully taking their soft plastic to supermarkets in the expectation it would be recycled.

That promise was soon broken, and now we have giant piles of soft plastic in bales sitting in warehouses all over the country. What is going to happen with it?

Thirty years ago, when I was in NSW Parliament, I sat on a committee enquiring into waste.

We had many witnesses come before us including local heads of companies producing significant waste – Coca Cola, paper manufacturer Bowater-Scott and others.

I asked each one in turn if their company would take ‘cradle-to-grave’ responsibility for their waste.

Everyone said no, except Coca Cola. For them, it was comparatively easier, but imagine Bowater-Scott having to take responsibility for millions of soiled plastic nappies now rotting in landfills.

On a parliamentary tour visiting Milan, I asked the head of Pirelli if his company would take back and process their used tyres.

He was driving us around at the time and almost swerved off the road in shock.

Not all companies are as unresponsive as that. After the first Clean Up event at Sydney Harbour in January 1989, organised by Ian Kiernan, I took several bags of expanded polystyrene waste, much of it emblazoned with McDonald’s golden arches, to their HQ at Pennant Hills and met with their vice president.

He asked, ‘What can we use instead?’ ‘Cardboard boxes,’ I replied.  They changed their packaging. If only corporations were that responsive today.

The plastics industry is pushing for incineration under the deceptive guise of ‘waste to energy’ but no community wants it. Landfill is being used but it’s hardly an answer.

Plastic is not going away.

It’s in almost every gadget we use as well as ‘fast fashion’ clothes, but there’s a growing movement to find climate-safe alternatives.

The plastic industry has announced it intends quadrupling output by 2050.

This would inevitably have a catastrophic effect, as currently almost all plastic is made from fossil fuels.

This is where AI comes in.

Scientists around the world are already using it to great effect to determine which enzymes can be harnessed to break down an enormous variety of plastics safely into harmless component parts for reuse.

Enzymes could prove to be a major part of the solution to eat through the 250 million tonnes of plastic waste produced globally every year.

Those mountains of waste plastic could be reused to make new plastic at a lower cost than using new gas and oil. The companies that create the waste must be made to pay to solve the problem and not just pass it on to the community.

We need legislation to levy producers and importers at a high enough rate to bring about rapid change.

The stranglehold the fossil fuel industry has on this government must be broken.

Richard Jones is a former NSW MLC, and is now a ceramicist.

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  1. Are you suggesting we should go back to the fifties?. A typical green lefty viewpoint. Stop progress, stop prosperity, stop everything. You green people are so stupid. We are at a point in time where progress has maybe caused some problems. We need to use our grey matter to solve these problems. We have fine young minds available to provide the immediate solutions. Let them work them out and stop the lefty alarmist drivel that side tracks them. You greens are the problem, not the solution.

  2. I can go one better Richard, I remember my father each night putting out a “billy” on the fence post. It would be filled with milk in the early hours of each morning, consumed through the day, washed then returned to the fence post.

    Greg, I don’t think that Richard is suggesting that we can return to the fifties. His examples are just an illustration of how far we have travelled, in a relatively short time, from maximum reuse and minimal packaging to totally over-the-top excess in our use of (mainly plastic) packaging – a collective madness. As consumers we are told to vote with our wallets but, in reality, we are given little choice to purchase without ridiculous levels of excess.

    Yes there are brilliant young minds and I’m sure most of them would suggest that no matter what brilliant solutions we come up with there are just not enough ongoing uses for all that plastic we will need to recycle. They know that reducing mindless levels of waste is preferable to expending the time, resources and expense of recycling what we didn’t need to use in the first place. Because whatever solutions these brilliant minds discover, they won’t come cost free.

    I would have thought a good Tory economic rationalist would be all over this.

    And btw, Richard good article except that it’s not absolutely compulsory to fit in somewhere a swipe at the present government: “The stranglehold the fossil fuel industry has on this government must be broken”. I’d love to have my purchasing power enhanced by some sensible legislation but I think convenience, laziness and apathy is driving industry reliance on excessive levels of packaging rather than the power of the fossil fuel industry. They make enough elsewhere.

    Also, while I prefer to recycle cardboard, it’s also wasteful and not a great solution.

    But Greg, what’s the go? Your no-doubt hero John Howard endlessly extolled the virtues of the white picket fence.

  3. Plastic has and always will be a problem
    It certainly is choking our oceans..and waterways..
    It’s a huge concern… just some advice Mr Jones
    If you are so concerned about what Plastic is
    Doing to our planet ! You surely are practising
    What you preach ? The computer you used
    To post the article..hydrocarbon’s Mr Jones ..
    How ironic..🤔


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