Top Ten Stories of 2020: Plastic Pollution Solutions Begin to Emerge

Graphic: Annabel Driussi for ODP

The pandemic changed attitudes about many environmental issues — and plastic pollution was no exception.  During lockdown, the extent of our dependence on plastic, and the amount of plastic waste we are generating from just our day to day lives became abundantly clear.

For the first time, Democrats in Congress introduced comprehensive legislation to deal with the plastic crisis.  As we wrote in February, Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.) and Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) introduced the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, which after months of build-up​ will kick off what is likely to be a heated fight over the legislation. The bill would shift the onus of managing plastic waste to producers of plastic bottles, packaging and assorted items, along with creating a national container deposit system.

In addition, scientific breakthroughs that could be game-changers when it comes to plastic pollution, also started to emerge.  For example, we reported in April that researchers at Carbios, a French company, report in the Journal Nature that they’ve “engineered an enzyme that can convert 90% of that same plastic back to its pristine starting materials” and they are working to open a demonstration plant next year.  The enzyme breaks down plastic all the way into a recyclable form — the company, in collaboration with Pepsi and L’Oréal, hopes to have market scale production within 5 years.  And in September, according to a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers have engineered a new “super enzyme” that breaks down recycled plastic 6-times faster than previously possible.

Finally, companies began to take greater responsibility for finding solutions to plastic waste. In August, we reported on the launch of the U.S. Plastics Pact, a collaborative led by The Recycling Partnership and World Wildlife Fund (WWF), as part of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s global Plastics Pact network. The pact is an initiative to unify diverse public-private stakeholders across the plastics value chain to rethink how plastic is designed, used, and reused, in an effort to create a circular economy for the material in the United States.

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