CAD/BIM Tips & Tricks
Re-Engineering Plastic: It’s Fantastic!
11 April 2023
We’ve heard it a thousand times before, from the likes of Greta Thunberg to the talking heads at various environmental conferences that occasionally make the news headlines: What are we going to do about plastic?
We’re bombarded with catchwords and phrases that are hurled out into the ether in an endless barrage: single-use, marine life, sustainability, landfills, the great Pacific garbage patch, on and on and on until we’re numb and deaf to it, at which point nobody pays attention anymore. But just this once, listen up, because some of the ideas out there for re-engineering plastic waste are very clever and make a lot of sense.
Some of the ideas for re-engineering plastic waste are very clever and make a lot of sense.
Plastic, Return to From Whence You Came!
Many waste products, given sufficient time, will happily decompose. Food waste, paper products, leather and wood all happily biodegrade and return to the earth. Hell, even brick and mortar — given enough time — will do the whole dust-to-dust thing. But plastic? A simple disposable diaper can take up to 600 years to break down in a landfill and we currently throw out about 18 billion of those stinky suckers each year. Those innocuous plastic utensils that come with your take-out meal? They can take up to 1,000 years to decompose and the US alone plows through more than 100 million plastic utensils every day.
The main problem with most plastics is that they never truly biodegrade and “return to the earth.” They simply break down into smaller and smaller particles of plastic, which means they never really go away.
Hell, even brick and mortar — given enough time — will do the whole dust-to-dust thing.
While clever, inventive plastic alternatives are constantly being researched and developed, the issue of what to do with the mountains of existing plastic waste is a problem that has some exciting potential solutions, thanks to science and clever engineering.
Plastic’s Circle of Life
Our first mention is more like reverse engineering, as it comes closest to returning plastic to from whence it came. Japanese inventor, Akinori Ito, developed a household-sized appliance that converts waste plastic into fuel. Realizing that plastics are not much more than processed crude oil, Ito set about developing a way to return them to just that: usable fuel. The result of his research is actually remarkably efficient.
One kilogram of plastic can produce approximately one liter of oil and requires approximately only one-kilowatt hour of electricity. This oil can be burned, as is, or converted into gasoline, diesel or kerosene.
Next up is ReDeTec™, inventor of the ProtoCycler, the world’s first plastic waste-gobbling 3D-print filament maker. This clever machine recycles plastic waste into new filament you can then use to print new objects, with approximately 80% cost-savings on your filament! The ProtoCycler is not a picky eater and will consume virtually anything from failed 3D prints to empty plastic bottles. All the plastics are ground down into “digestible” pieces, before being melted and extruded as spools of plastic filament, ready for your next 3D-printing project.
Biology: 2, Plastic: 0
You’d never look at a bowl of pasta drenched in a delectably creamy mushroom sauce, and think, “I bet I could get fungi to eat plastic!” But that’s kind of what happened to Sehroon Khan of the World Agroforestry Center. Mr. Khan and his team discovered a plastic-eating fungus, Aspergillus Tubingensis, that lives in soil. It secretes enzymes onto plastics that help break down the long polymer chains responsible for holding plastic together. The major concern with Aspergillus Tubingensis is the chance that it could become invasive if it hungrily sets its sights on materials other than plastic for consumption.
Finally, in a similar vein, researchers in a Japanese recycling plant discovered a mutant bacterium, Ideonella sakaiensis, that produces an enzyme, PETase, that literally breaks down plastic and consumes it.
Professor John McGeehan, a research scientist at the University of Portsmouth and currently the scientific lead of the World Plastics Summit, has led an international team that is working to engineer improved versions of the PETase enzyme, making it more efficient. The team’s ultimate goal is to engineer improved enzymes that can break down plastics into their original building blocks on an industrial scale so that they can be reused as part of a circular plastics economy.
With a host of plastic-alternative products being brought to market and promising solutions for dealing with existing plastic waste, perhaps future generations won’t face the plastic problems we currently face. We’ll have safeguarded and improved the environment and plastic will turn out to have been a mere blip on the eco-radar.
Solutions Come in All Shapes and Sizes
Whether you design and engineer autobody parts, bridges or bacterial enzymes, as a MicroStation®;, Revit®;or AutoCAD®, you’re probably familiar with the blips — or quirks — of your platform.
Whether it’s getting your Word®; and Excel®; imports to format correctly, or dealing with changes to title blocks, or easily finding and editing Revit families, or dealing with conversions between DGNs and DWGs, Axiom produces purpose-built tools for each of these platforms, specifically designed to save you time and reduce frustration.
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