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Plastic: China doesn’t want it, and we need it in space

A.  Plastic grocery bags and water bottles are a BIG problem on Earth.

B.  Cosmic rays are a BIG problem in human space travel.

The solution to both problems is simple. Send our recycled plastic trash into space and use it to shield ships from cosmic rays.

This is not a joke.

Cosmic rays are highly energetic particles that pass through most atoms until they hit a nucleus dead on. They are a form of radiation that is the single largest health threat to astronauts traveling beyond Earth’s natural magnetic shield. 

Hydrogen, which can be found in polyethylene structure of plastic grocery bags and water bottles, is effective against cosmic rays because the hydrogen atom has less space for a cosmic ray to pass through without hitting the nucleus. If space ships were built incorporating polyethylene shielding, astronauts would be better protected from cosmic rays without adding tons of dense metal-based shielding to the spacecraft.

Recycling polymer materials and sending it into space would relatively expensive unless we had a major Moon and Mars exploration program that could use the materials once they had an inventory in space. By starting an inventory recycled plastic in orbit around Earth, the future cost of space exploration could be reduced, and the amount of wasted plastic in our environment would be reduced. 

At a time when China is now refusing to accept our raw recycled materials, we need to become creative on new uses for the stuff that won’t ever go away.