Old toys will self-destruct thanks to vanishing plastic
By Sandrine Ceurstemont
YOUNG, energetic and clean-shaven, Scott Phillips looks the very antithesis of Santa Claus. Just as well: he makes toys disappear.
The Western world’s festive consumer frenzy contributes to a global crisis that has left the planet up to its neck in long-lasting plastic tat, and its oceans, according to a recent estimate, awash with some 250 million tonnes of the stuff. What we wouldn’t give for plastics that could transform into something else, fall apart or even vanish altogether. In his lab at Penn State University, Phillips is on the case. “We make plastic objects disappear all the time,” he says. Perhaps it won’t be too long before the season’s must-have toy comes equipped with a self-destruct button.
But today’s plastics are not just for Christmas. Indeed, their durability and low cost mean that many everyday objects are destined to hang around for decades. We can only guess at how long some plastics survive in landfill, but in many cases it extends beyond the 50 years or so we’ve been producing and discarding them on a grand scale. If we recycle plastic instead, melting it down takes a lot of energy and can release toxic components. And even then, the resulting mix of hard plastics that usually enters a recycling stream creates a polymer soup peppered with various dyes and solvents, so we end up with a hunk of junk plastic fit only for a single, final use, like a park bench.