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NUTEC Plastics: Using Nuclear Technologies 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. 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 today 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 per cent has been recycled, and about 17 per cent remains in use, according to a study published in Science Advances. Leaving the remaining bulk to landfills (60 per cent) 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.

Controlling plastic pollution

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 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. 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.”

Advancing efforts nationally, regionally and globally

The IAEA hosted the virtual event in collaboration with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) and countries based in the region. “The regional and global actions outlined in ASEAN’s Bangkok Declaration on Combating Marine Debris, the Osaka Blue Ocean Vision and the various international programmes of UNEP and ESCAP provide important frameworks,” said Hua Liu, IAEA Deputy Director General and Head of the Department of Technical Cooperation. “The IAEA’s contribution will strengthen research capacity and the application of scientific knowledge to combat marine debris, supporting science-based policy and decision making.”

The IAEA has more than 40 ongoing or planned technical cooperation projects, coordinated research projects and other programmatic activities related to radiation technologies and environmental monitoring, of which about 25 projects are directly related to plastics.

High-level officials and experts from Australia, China, Indonesia, Japan, Kuwait, Malaysia, the Philippines, the Republic of Korea and Thailand presented ongoing national and regional efforts. In China, for example, Huang Runqiu, Minister of Ecology and Environment, shared that by the end of 2022, non-degradable plastic bags and plastic tableware will be banned in many counties, and single-use plastic articles will no longer be provided by hotels. “While making domestic endeavours, we actively participate in international cooperation on marine plastic litter governance and respond to the bilateral and multilateral initiatives in this regard,” he said.

Dechen Tsering, Director for Asia and the Pacific at UNEP, said that the countries in the region have broadened, deepened and accelerated action, reflected in many of the initiatives and measures mentioned by ministers at the NUTEC Plastics roundtable. “There clearly is much scope for sharing and cross fertilization within the region and beyond,” she said.

The IAEA will host similar roundtables for other regions, as well as technical webinars on relevant nuclear technologies and their application against plastic pollution over the next months.

Learn more about the IAEA’s specialized programmes addressing some of the world’s most pressing challenges.

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