This Might Have Been Written by a Robot
Image: Getty Images/nadia_bormotova
I flatter myself that I’m “safe” in an occupation that won’t be replaced by a robot anytime soon. I persist in that comforting conclusion (or delusion, you might say) despite recent headlines about artificial-intelligence text-generating “chatbots” that can compose school term papers, pass graduate-school entrance exams, and even respond well enough to get hired by Google for a high-level engineer’s position with a six-figure salary!
Still, I was possessed by curiosity to try out these AI chat machines on an issue that has been bugging me lately. As I have written before, I’m hopeful about the potential for so-called “advanced” or chemical recycling to absorb substantial quantities of hard-to-recycle plastics products that have not proved amenable to conventional or mechanical recycling. At the same time, I see daily evidence that no effort by the plastics industry to apply technology and innovation to dealing with “plastics pollution” will satisfy an element of the population that disapproves of the very existence of a plastics industry.
Perhaps you have seen the headlines about state and local governments across the country considering legislation to curb the growth of chemical recycling, prompted in part by so-called environmental groups that claim (falsely) that chemical recycling is really incineration and deserves to be regulated as a form of waste disposal, not recycling.
For me, the last straw was reading a report of a recent hearing by the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in which a senator reportedly expressed concern that chemical recycling could compete for plastic waste feedstocks with mechanical recycling, and perhaps Federal action was needed to protect mechanical recycling from such a diversion. What?? The report further suggested that the whole question might be shaping up into a left-vs.-right or Democrat-vs.-Republican dispute. Oh, great.
With these thoughts festering in my brain, I turned to one of the most talked-about AI chatbots to see what it could make of this developing controversy. I created a free account at openai.com to try out their ChatGPT. Using a text Q&A chat format, I posed several questions related to chemical vs. mechanical recycling and was astonished to receive instant answers at multi-paragraph length, sometimes with bullet-point lists. Somehow, it found the requested information and organized it in essay form with introduction, body and summary/conclusion – all much faster than I could type it myself. The answers were relevant, articulate, coherent and – for the most part – accurate. More about that later. The quality of the writing was strictly expository, encyclopedia-ish (or term paper-ish) style. But the content showed why these “bots” could be dangerous if used as research tools by the uninformed without a filter of caution and even skepticism.
I opened by asking: “Are both mechanical recycling of plastics and chemical recycling of plastics good for the environment?”
Both mechanical and chemical recycling of plastics can have environmental benefits.
Mechanical recycling involves physically grinding down plastic waste and remolding it into new products, which conserves resources and reduces waste. However, the quality of the recycled plastic is usually lower compared to the original plastic and the process may produce microplastics as a byproduct.
Chemical recycling, also known as advanced recycling, involves breaking down plastic waste into its chemical building blocks and reusing these to create new plastics. This process can improve the quality of the recycled plastic and reduce the amount of waste sent to landfills, but the technology is still in its early stages and may have negative environmental impacts such as greenhouse gas emissions or the release of toxic chemicals.
Overall, both types of recycling can play a role in reducing plastic waste and conserving resources, but the best approach may depend on the specific circumstances and materials involved.
Hmm. Plausible enough, except for the last part of the third paragraph. I replied: “How does chemical recycling of plastics release greenhouse gases or toxic chemicals?”
Chemical recycling of plastics can release greenhouse gases or toxic chemicals in several ways:
- Energy consumption: The processes used in chemical recycling, such as pyrolysis or depolymerization, often require high temperatures and significant energy inputs, which can result in the release of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane.
- Process emissions: Some chemical recycling processes can result in the release of toxic chemicals into the air, such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). These emissions can have negative impacts on air quality and public health.
- Byproducts: The chemical recycling process may produce byproducts that are harmful to the environment, such as toxic intermediates or residuals. These byproducts may need to be properly managed to prevent contamination of air, water, or soil.
- End-of-life products: Products created through chemical recycling may not be recyclable and could end up in landfills, where they may contribute to greenhouse gas emissions or leach toxic chemicals into the environment.
It’s important to note that the specific environmental impact of chemical recycling will depend on the technology used and the conditions under which it is performed. Some chemical recycling processes have been developed to minimize emissions and waste, while others may have significant negative impacts. Governments and industry should carefully consider the potential environmental impacts of chemical recycling and prioritize methods that have been shown to be safe and effective.
Heaven knows where the bot gets its info, but I’d have to question Point #2. No one designs a chemical processing plant today without strict controls over chemical emissions. So what data is available about actual emissions from any chemical recycling facility? I don’t know, but I’d sure like to.
Likewise for Point #3: “The chemical recycling process may produce byproducts that are harmful to the environment.” Uh-huh. What evidence is there of such byproducts? “These byproducts may need to be properly managed …” Is there any evidence that is not the case?
Point #4 is even more questionable. “Products created through chemical recycling” – in other words, new plastic products – “may not be recyclable and could end up in landfills.” That’s just a tacit argument against making any plastic products, and not specifically against chemical recycling as a step in their production.
I addressed a frequent criticism from “environmental” groups: “Is chemical recycling of plastics in reality a form of incineration?” ChatGPT answered directly and correctly:
Chemical recycling of plastics is not the same as incineration.
Incineration involves burning waste, including plastics, to produce heat or electricity. This process can result in the release of harmful pollutants, such as dioxins and heavy metals, and may contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.
Chemical recycling, on the other hand, involves breaking down plastic waste into its chemical building blocks through processes such as pyrolysis or depolymerization, and then using these building blocks to create new plastics or other products. This process is intended to reduce waste and conserve resources, but the environmental impact of chemical recycling can vary depending on the specific technology used and the conditions under which it is performed.
In general, while both incineration and chemical recycling involve the processing of waste plastics, they are distinct methods with different goals and environmental impacts.
OK, so why are some environmental organizations against chemical recycling of plastics?
Some environmental organizations are against chemical recycling of plastics for several reasons:
- Environmental and health impacts: Some chemical recycling processes have been shown to release greenhouse gases or toxic chemicals, which can have negative impacts on the environment and public health. Environmental organizations are concerned about the potential long-term effects of these emissions and byproducts.
- Lack of transparency and regulation: The chemical recycling industry is still in its early stages and many processes are not well understood. Some environmental organizations are concerned that there may be insufficient regulations in place to ensure that chemical recycling processes are safe and sustainable.
- False solution: Some environmental organizations view chemical recycling as a “false solution” to the plastic waste problem, as it does not address the root cause of plastic pollution, which is the overproduction and overconsumption of plastic products. They argue that the focus should be on reducing the use of single-use plastics and promoting more sustainable alternatives, rather than finding ways to recycle plastic waste.
- Lack of evidence: There is limited evidence about the long-term effectiveness and sustainability of chemical recycling. Some environmental organizations are concerned that chemical recycling may not live up to its promises and could actually increase plastic pollution in the long term.
Interesting answer. As stated in point #3, chemical recycling is regularly criticized for not being a 100% solution to the plastics waste problem – though that seems hardly to be a cogent argument against implementing even a partial solution.
And I’m not so sure about Point #2: “many processes are not well understood.” Understood by whom? By environmental groups? I daresay the people who invented and commercialized these processes understand their inputs and outputs pretty well. It’s just chemical engineering, not Mystery Science Theater.
Me: “Do mechanical and chemical recycling of plastics compete with or complement each other?
Mechanical and chemical recycling of plastics can complement each other, but they can also compete in some cases.
Mechanical recycling is typically used for lower-quality plastic waste, while chemical recycling is used for more complex plastics that cannot be effectively processed through mechanical means. By combining these two methods, it may be possible to recycle a wider range of plastic waste and reduce the amount sent to landfills.
On the other hand, competition between mechanical and chemical recycling can occur when the same resources or markets are being targeted. For example, if a chemical recycling facility is processing plastic waste that could have been mechanically recycled, this may reduce the supply of material for mechanical recycling and negatively impact the viability of that industry.
In general, the relationship between mechanical and chemical recycling of plastics will depend on the specific circumstances, such as the type of plastic waste being processed, local recycling infrastructure, and market demand for recycled products. In some cases, both methods may be used in conjunction to achieve the best results, while in other cases, one method may be preferred over the other.
Pretty good answer. But here’s an example of why you shouldn’t get complacent when using these bots. I decided to take a different tack –
Me: Are single-use paper bags better for the environment than single-use plastic bags?
The environmental impact of single-use paper bags versus single-use plastic bags is complex and can depend on several factors, such as the source of the materials, the manufacturing process, and the waste management practices in a given region.
- Material production: The production of paper bags requires the cutting down of trees, which can contribute to deforestation, loss of biodiversity, and release of greenhouse gases. In contrast, plastic bags are made from petroleum, a finite resource, and their production contributes to the depletion of non-renewable resources and greenhouse gas emissions.
- Manufacturing and transportation: The production of paper bags requires more energy and generates more greenhouse gas emissions than the production of plastic bags. However, paper bags are typically lighter and take up less space than plastic bags, which can reduce the environmental impact of transportation.
- Waste management: Plastic bags are lightweight and can easily become litter, which can harm wildlife and marine environments. Plastic bags can persist in the environment for hundreds of years, while paper bags can break down over time, but they still contribute to waste and can create methane, a potent greenhouse gas, in landfills.
Overall, neither single-use paper bags nor single-use plastic bags are an ideal solution for the environment. The best approach is to reduce the use of single-use bags altogether and switch to reusable bags, whether made of cloth, paper, or another material. This can help to minimize waste, conserve resources, and reduce the impact of packaging on the environment.
Overall, a reasonable answer, and one with no apparent bias for or against plastics. However, I doubt the veracity of the statement in Point #2 that “paper bags are typically lighter and take up less space than plastic bags.” I’m pretty sure that just the opposite is true!
An obvious falsehood throws a shade of doubt over the whole exercise. Keep in mind that chatbots do not analyze or make judgments. They just parrot scraps of information scraped from who-knows-where on the internet, with some unknown degree of rewording to suit the context and perhaps avoid outright plagiarism. (OpenAI is quite candid about the limitations of its chatbot – see “Limitations” on its website.)
I hear that Google is concerned that AI bots could threaten their hegemony over internet search. My brief experience suggests that these bots have not evolved to the point of being useful research tools. They are not Wikipedia (but beware of editorial bias in Wikipedia entries, too). Better, I say, to type your keywords into a search engine and then use your own judgment to filter the results for sources that strike you as most likely to be reliable or to reflect a particular point of view.
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