Conflicts in Chemistry: The Case of Plastics

Waste-Plastic-to-Oil-Recycling

Waste-Plastic-to-Oil-Recycling

 

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Waste Group: You are an Expert on Plastic-to-Oil Recycling

Your Background and Biography

You are a pioneer in the field of plastic-waste research. You have studied the impact of plastic waste on the environment and promoted efforts to change approaches to plastic waste. Your work has produced many changes, but every time you see someone toss a plastic water bottle into a waste can, you are reminded how much more work needs to be done.  Plastics are a relatively new addition to our environment, and we don’t yet know the full effect of damage they cause. What we do know is not reassuring. You are particularly concerned about plastic in the ocean, where cold water temperatures slow down the already gradual chemical reactions that cause plastics to break down. Plastics in landfills are also a problem because the oxygen-deprived trash heaps also slow biodegradation.

Your early concern about plastic trash led you to support recycling long before it became common practice.  As an undergraduate you became involved in your campus environmental movement and helped make the first Earth Day a successful and rousing call to action. You later started volunteering with a statewide environmental action group, one of the first in the United States promoting active response to ecological problems, and you helped organize one of the first curbside recycling programs in the country.  All of your work and research promotes recycling as a critical component of an ecologically sound future. After all, plastics do not naturally break down anywhere near fast enough to keep up with the speed at which we create new ones. We are slowly burying ourselves in a mound of plastic.

You hold a Ph.D. in chemistry, and your research seeks solutions to the problems of plastics in new recycling technologies. You believe that waste advocates should talk about pyrolysis, the breakdown of plastic waste into the raw material used to create it. Using very high temperatures and an oxygen-free environment, plastics can be broken down into a liquid fuel similar to diesel. You do not understand why technologies like this have not been more actively promoted, and you hope the Environmental Protection Agency hearings will be a chance to encourage the development of innovative technology.

You have a lot to say at the hearings about how we can address the plastic-waste problem. You wish everyone shared your point of view about the moral imperative of recycling, but for all your passion as an anti-waste activist, you’re also a pragmatist. You know that people are not going to change their behavior without a strong incentive, no matter how much that change would benefit them. You believe that government incentives are needed to encourage the further development of recycling. Government regulation and subsidy are the only way we can move toward a more sustainable future where we recycle a much greater percentage of the plastic we create than we do today. You hope to be a strong voice in favor of the role government can play for the greater good of the environment.

Your Mission

Your goal at this hearing is to convince the Regulators to include the Waste Group’s recommendations in their final regulation. To make this argument effectively, you must

  • Complete the assigned readings listed at the bottom of this page;

  • Work closely with the other members of your group to develop clear answers to the Regulator questions;

  • Make use of as much specific information as possible to develop strong arguments for your position that plastics are extremely harmful to the environment and that reducing production and consumption is the only effective solution to the problem;

  • Read as much as you can about your position and the positions of the other groups; and

  • Complete written reflections on your character, interest group, and readings as assigned. 

Your Victory Objectives

  • You will receive 10 points if the Regulators select your group’s proposal as the final regulation.

  • The Regulators will rank the interest groups by how well their goals are represented in the final regulation. You will receive between 1 and 5 points based on how the Waste Group is ranked and how well the regulation reflects your goals.

Sources

Waste Group Sources

Your Individual Sources

  • Plastics and Energy Recovery,” by Jennifer Killinger, American Chemistry Council, March 1, 2011

  • Select one article from the bibliography on The Case of Plastics website recommended for the Waste Group. Read the article and write two paragraphs summarizing the article and how it will be useful to you in the upcoming debate.

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