Nuclear gamma ray technology 'could help to deal with plastic pollution'

Aerial shot top view Garbage trucks unload garbage to a recycle in the vicinity of the city of Bangkok, Thailand
Could gamma rays help with plastic pollution? (Getty)

Nuclear technology such as gamma rays could help to deal with the world's plastic problem, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Gamma rays and electron beams could be used on plastic waste to turn it into plastic and pellets that can be recycled or up-cycled, experts believe.

Normal plastic recycling lowers the quality of the plastics generated – but radiation can break down plastic polymers into reusable products.

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Najat Mokhtar, IAEA deputy director general and head of its Department of Nuclear Sciences and Applications, said: "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.

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"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."

Of all plastic produced between 1950 and 2015, only 9% has been recycled, and 17% remains in use – the rest has been buried in landfill, incinerated or ended up in the ocean.

By 2025, the ocean will contain one tonne of plastic for every three tonnes of fish.

By 2050, there may be more plastic in the ocean than fish, according to projections.

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Rafael Mariano Grossi, IAEA director general, said: "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.

"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."

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The IAEA has 25 projects relating to plastics, including research to help trace micro-plastics.

Research this year found that thousands of rivers, including smaller ones, are responsible for most of the plastic pollution worldwide.

Previously, researchers believed that 10 large rivers, such as the Yangtze in China, were responsible for the bulk of plastic pollution.

But in fact, 1,000 rivers – 1% of all rivers worldwide – carry most of the plastic to the sea.

The research by the non-profit The Ocean Cleanup means that areas like tropical islands are likely to be among the worst polluters, the scientists said.

They used measurements and modelling to work out that 1,000 rivers worldwide are behind 80% of plastic emissions.

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