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Bob Meinetz's picture
Nuclear Power Policy Activist, Independent

I am a passionate advocate for the environment and nuclear energy. With the threat of climate change, I’ve embarked on a mission to help overcome the fears of nuclear energy. I’ve been active in...

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  • May 27, 2021

The International Atomic Energy Agency has created a new program, NUclear TEChnology for Controlling Plastic Pollution (NUTEC Plastics), to address the global environmental impact of plastic pollution in oceans. It uses nuclear technology to monitor pollution and also to decrease the volume of plastic waste by using irradiation to complement traditional plastic recycling methods.

A sizable problem: According to a study published in Science Advances and described in an article published by the IAEA on May 18, only 9 percent of all plastic produced from 1950 to 2015 has been recycled, and about 17 percent remains in use. About 60 percent has been sent to landfills that may contaminate downstream ecosystems, such as rivers, groundwater, and eventually the ocean, and about 12 percent has been incinerated. According to the IAEA, based on current trends, the oceans are expected to contain one metric ton of plastic for every three metric tons of fish by 2025, and by 2050, there may be more plastic than fish.

“Nuclear techniques can help in assessing and understanding the dimension of the problem . . . but also in the recycling of plastic through radiation techniques, which allow us to produce materials that can be further used in the concept of a circular economy,” said IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi during a roundtable discussion on May 18 with IAEA partners in Asia and the Pacific region. Similar roundtables are planned for other regions, along with technical webinars on relevant nuclear technologies and their application against plastic pollution.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on May 27, 2021

Interesting-- so in the recyling side of things, what exactly is the nuclear tech able to accomplish that can't be done by traditional recycling methods (which are known to be insufficient as it stands)?

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on May 27, 2021

Matt, though I posted this article I can't endorse it - I don't understand it completely myself. But per IAEA:

"NUTEC Plastics will demonstrate how gamma and electron beam radiation technologies can modify certain types of plastic waste to be recycled or upcycled for reuse. 'A main obstacle in conventional plastic recycling is that recycling lowers the quality of plastic and pellets generated,' Mokhtar explained. 'You can use radiation to break down plastic polymers having insufficient quality into smaller components and use these to generate new plastic products, thus extending the plastic waste lifecycle.'"

Years ago, a friend and consultant who worked for the Los Angeles Dept. of Sanitation developed a similar technique for sorting and recycling municipal solid waste (MSW, or garbage). It used ultra-high heat to break down materials into their component parts for recycling. It never gained much traction, though. Generating enough energy to heat all of that trash ended up creating more of an environmental impact than the trash would in a landfill.

If L.A. was powered by nuclear energy, of course, it would be another story.

Nearly all of the plastic waste in oceans comes from developing countries without any national environmental standards at all - it gets piled on barges and hauled out to sea. In his book Apocalypse Never, Michael Shellenberger explains how insisting on paper straws, recycled water bottles, etc. in the U.S. is less than pointless. If developing countries had access to abundant, clean, affordable energy, he writes, they too would have the tools and resources to dispose of waste in a responsible manner.

The U.S., in so many ways, sets an example for the world. Insisting on paper drinking straws makes no more sense in Bali than it does here.

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on May 27, 2021

Always interesting, Bob. This link might also be interesting to you.

It is a nice climate data mapping tool from the recent update. It seems to suggest that indeed Pacific Ocean plastic pollution is possibly also reducing Western US precipitation. We touched on this years ago, comparing it to food plastic wrap limiting evaporation. Common sense, physics, and data deserve some respect in this important issue.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on May 27, 2021

Add it to the already heaping pile of tragedies that are coming because of the plastic pollution problem. We need real systematic change for about 1,000 different reasons

Bob Meinetz's picture
Thank Bob for the Post!
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