Using Nuclear Technologies to Address Plastic Pollution

Rafael Mariano Grossi, IAEA Director General. Photo: IAEA
Rafael Mariano Grossi, IAEA Director General. Photo: IAEA

NUclear TEChnology for Controlling Plastic Pollution (NUTEC Plastics) is set out to assist countries in integrating nuclear and isotopic techniques to address plastic pollution.

Plastic pollution is a major environmental challenge that poses a direct threat to sustainable development and, ultimately, our livelihood. When no longer useful, plastics are often destined for incineration or landfills. Much of the plastic waste ends up in the oceans, harming marine life and potentially contaminating the seafood we eat. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), nuclear techniques can help monitor and reduce plastic waste.

“The times we are living – as we are still struggling with the pandemic – have confirmed to all of us in a powerful and painful way that global problems need global solutions. We can only solve big issues when we come together,” said IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi, during a roundtable discussion on May 18 with partners in Asia and the Pacific region.

More than 340 participants from countries across Asia and the Pacific attended the event. They included users of nuclear technologies and environmental experts from industry, academia and international organizations. The event was the first of a series of roundtables that provide a platform to discuss ongoing efforts, innovative solutions and partnerships to confront plastic pollution.

Of all plastic produced since 1950 to 2015, only 9 percent has been recycled, and about 17 percent remains in use, according to a study published in Science Advances. Leaving the remaining bulk to landfills (60 percent) that contaminate downstream ecosystems, such as rivers, groundwater and eventually the ocean, and incineration (12 per cent), which often releases toxic gases. By 2025, the ocean will contain one tonne of plastic for every three tonnes of fish, and by 2050, there may be more plastic in the ocean than fish, according to projections.

The IAEA is at the forefront of deploying nuclear science and technology to address global challenges, including for plastic pollution. “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,” Mr Grossi said.

NUclear TEChnology for Controlling Plastic Pollution (NUTEC Plastics) is set out to assist countries in integrating nuclear and isotopic techniques to address plastic pollution. “The IAEA is poised to provide 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. 

The approach of NUTEC Plastics is twofold: 1) to provide science-based evidence to characterize and assess marine microplastic pollution and 2) to demonstrate the use of ionizing radiation in plastic recycling to transform plastic waste into reusable resources.

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.

Nuclear technology also offers a solution to lower the volumes of plastic waste. The welfare of the environment and human life highlight the need to reroute the lifecycle of plastic toward a circular economy, focusing on the 4Rs: reduce, reuse, recycle and renew.

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. 

“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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Rakesh Raman