Nuclear techniques to monitor—and prevent—plastic pollution

May 25, 2021, 12:04PMNuclear News
Plastic waste on a Galapagos beach. Sunlight, wind, and waves break down large plastic debris into smaller and smaller pieces to become microplastics. (Photo: F. Oberhaensli/IAEA)

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.

A nuclear solution: NUTEC Plastics was created to assist countries in integrating nuclear and isotopic techniques to address plastic pollution. Its approach is twofold: (1) to provide science-based evidence to characterize and assess marine microplastic pollution, and (2) to demonstrate the use of ionizing radiation to transform plastic waste into reusable resources.

According to the IAEA, NUTEC Plastics will enhance the capability of laboratories to study the impacts of plastic pollution in coastal and marine ecosystems, utilizing nuclear methods to precisely track and quantify the movement and impacts of microplastics and co-contaminants.

The IAEA has about 25 ongoing or planned technical cooperation projects, coordinated research projects, and other programmatic activities involving radiation technologies and environmental monitoring directly related to plastics.

Recycling and upcycling: As a complement to traditional mechanical and chemical recycling methods, 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.

“The IAEA is poised to provide unique nuclear solutions to plastic pollution through development and promotion of radiation technologies to help replace petroleum-based plastics with biodegradable ones to improve conventional recycling practice and to renew end-of-life plastic,” said Najat Mokhtar, IAEA deputy director general and head of the Department of Nuclear Sciences and Applications.

According to documentation from the IAEA, gamma and electron beam irradiation can complement existing recycling methods to:

  • Sort mechanically treated plastic waste according to polymer type.
  • Break down plastic polymers into smaller components to be used as raw materials for new plastic products.
  • Treat plastic so that it can be amalgamated with other material to make more durable products.
  • Convert plastic into fuel and feedstocks through radiolysis (irradiation and chemical recycling).

“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.”

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