Plastic pollution has become one of the major global environmental challenges of the century; projections show that by 2050 the oceans may have more plastic than fish. Nuclear technology has emerged as one innovative solution to this growing problem.
By harnessing nuclear technologies, IAEA can address the challenges of plastic pollution both on land and in the ocean to tackle this global problem. This was the message brought by experts at a meeting held on the sidelines of the IAEA’s 66th General Conference. The event highlighted the impact of the IAEA’s initiative on Nuclear Technology for Controlling Plastic Pollution – NUTEC Plastics.
“Plastic pollution threatens sustainable development and our own well-being. We must work together to address it using science to inform smart policies,” IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi told attendees. “The application of nuclear science and technologies for the monitoring of plastics in the marine environment and for recycling and creation of biodegradable plastics gives it an indispensable role in meeting our environmental challenges.”
Mr. Grossi launched NUTEC Plastics in 2020 to enhance global understanding of the abundance and impact of marine plastic pollution and to broaden the application of nuclear technologies in dealing with plastic waste, there by assisting countries in moving towards a circular plastic economy.
The IAEA has developed strategic, four-staged approaches for nuclear solutions to plastic pollution within NUTEC Plastics, in what is referred to as upstream and downstream target areas. Event participants heard that in its upstream strategic approach, nuclear technologies, specifically radiation technologies, are used to innovate plastic waste recycling and support the development of biodegradable, green alternatives to single-use petroleum-based plastic products – an approach aimed at reducing the volume of plastic waste worldwide and prevent the plastics from reaching earth’s marine environments. The challenges in the ocean are addressed in NUTEC Plastic’s downstream activities, participants were told, where nuclear techniques are used to quantify and characterize marine microplastic pollution and to assess their impact on coastal and marine ecosystems. A further downstream activity is the development of a global plastics monitoring network of marine laboratories, through capacity building.
During the side event, attendees learned about the substantial progress NUTEC plastics has made since its launch. Thanks to pledges reaching almost Є4.5 million from the IAEA Member States, NUTEC Plastics is being mobilized to support the 78 countries requesting IAEA support in solving their plastic pollution problems.
“NUTEC Plastics aims to consolidate and build on IAEA’s assistance to its Member States in finding nuclear solutions to plastic pollution,” Mr. Grossi told event participants. “When confronted with issues of a global nature, we must try new approaches. NUTEC is the call to make the best use of nuclear.”
Participants learned about the establishment of a global NUTEC Monitoring Network of laboratories, as a vital consolidation activity in downstream NUTEC Plastics, to exchange data, knowledge, and best practices. Presently, there are 55 laboratories in the global NUTEC Plastics Monitoring Network.
Corey Hinderstein, Deputy Administrator for Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation in the United States National Nuclear Security Administration, said one of their core goals is to enhance nuclear security while ensuring the peaceful use of nuclear. She announced that the United States would be donating a further USD 1 million to the NUTEC Plastics program.
NUTEC Plastics’ upstream activities presently encompass both research and development activities for both plastic recycling and generation of eco-friendly plastics as well as technology transfer for establishing pilot-scale plastic recycling plants. Six countries from the Asia and the Pacific and Europe regions have completed or drafted pre-feasibility studies for their proposed plastic recycling pilot plants, a milestone in the first stage of NUTEC’s upstream strategic approach.
The Philippines has a significant plastic pollution problem and a great interest in recycling. At the event, Renato Solidum, Secretary at the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) in the Philippines, explained his country’s experience with NUTEC Plastics. He said the DOST has undertaken a pre-feasibility study and concept investigations for a pilot plant employing electron beam radiation to combine two waste streams – plastics and palm tree fibers – into a new consumer product, construction material.
“We are championing the research and development of innovative products to tackle marine plastic pollution,” said Mr. Solidum, Secretary at the Department of Science and Technology in the Philippines, who explained that as a mega biodiverse country where most of the population lives in coastal areas, the Philippines remains under threat from plastic in the marine environment. “We see the potential in recycling through radiation technology and have been using such methods to irradiate plastic pellets. You can use radiation to break down plastic polymers to be used to generate new plastic products, thus extending the plastic waste lifecycle.” In support of this, the IAEA will issue a guideline for Integrating Electron Beam Technology into Polymer Recycling Process next month.
The IAEA is unique within the United Nations system in having laboratories in Austria and Monaco that apply nuclear science, technology, and techniques to help Member States address some of the world’s biggest issues, including plastic pollution. Created in 1961, the Monaco-based IAEA Marine Environment Laboratories provides research and development, training, and technical cooperation in sampling, monitoring, and impact assessment of microplastics. The Monaco laboratories serve as the central hub of the global NUTEC Plastics Monitoring Network.