Plastics : the Good and the Bad
Plastic products have flooded the world, in take-away restaurants, aircrafts, airports, supermarkets, just name it. Practically everything seems to be packed in plastics bags and covers, consumed on plastic plates, with plastic forks and knifes or drunk from plastic bottles and cups. But there is much more: plastic piping, raincoats, clothing, wraps, cotton tabs, adhesive tape and toothbrushes….
Left: Ocean polluting top-scoring countries
Anger and disgust of those protesting against plastic in the past two decades have had practically ZERO impact. Its production is still rising and has almost tripled in last decades. The arguments of protestors are already known by the producers but have been insufficiently coordinated to become a serious threat to the plastic producing economy. Two probable reasons why it has proven to be so difficult to get rid of plastics is that they also have a good side and that alternatives have not yet been sufficiently worked out.
The good Plastic is made from a byproduct of crude oil, a nonrenewable resource. Although it has only really existed for the last 60-70 years, it has transformed in that period everything from clothing, cooking and catering, to product design, engineering and retailing. Plastics manufacturing is a major part of the chemical industry, and some of the world's largest chemical companies have been involved since the earliest days. Plastic was initially seen as a gift from heaven: it was light, cheap to produce and suitable to pack almost everything. It is widely used in transportation, computers, aircraft, building, the sanitary industry, in the material used for wound closure, transplants and for storage of blood. Plastics are light, corrosion resistant, strong, increase the quality of food packages, improve health, and ideal to conserve materials. One of the great advantages of many types of plastic is that they're designed to last - for a very long time. In summary: its societal benefits are found in three broad application areas: (i) energy-saving uses, (ii) uses that conserve materials, and (iii) uses that assure consumer health and safety.
The bad. The bad part of plastics is that because they are so light they can travel long distances by wind and water and that plastic bags in particular pollute our land and water. They litter our landscapes, get caught in fences and trees, float around in waterways, and can eventually make their way into the world's oceans. Second in littering come plastic bottles. A million plastic bottles are sold around the world every minute and the number will jump another 20% in coming years. Plastic drink bottles are made from a polymer called PET, which chemicals xylene and ethylene, are extracted from crude oil.
The big six drinks companies that produce PET (including the Coca-Cola company) so far have done very little to stimulate recycling their plastic bottles. A Guardian investigation this year established that consumers around the world buy a million plastic bottles a minute and plastic production is set to double in the next 20 years and quadruple by 2050.
Polluting countries top five. China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam are the top five polluters, according to a report from the Ocean Conservancy and the McKinsey Center for Business and Environment. In these Asian countries, only about 40 percent of garbage is properly collected. Across Asia, trash is often still piled up in communal dumps where the lighter parts are swept up by the wind and cast into the ocean. Plastic bags are commonly found in waterways, on beaches, and in other dumping sites across China. The good side is that more strict Chinese limits on ultra-thin plastic bags significantly reduced bag-related pollution nationwide during the past year. The country avoided the use of 40 billion bags, according to government estimates. A survey however also found that nearly 96 percent of open food markets throughout Beijing continued to provide bags. The policy exempts the use of plastic packaging for raw meat and noodles for hygiene and safety reasons. Even with mounting interest in banning bags in stores, China’s booming delivery industry is expected to continue to present an increasing cause for concern in the future
Our Oceans and marine life The oceans absorbed 4.8 million to 12.7 million metric tons of plastic trash in 2010, with China leading the list of contributors, according to a report on plastic waste published in the journal Science. Plastics debris in the World's come from tourists, sewerage overflows, landfill sites near coastlines, illegal dumping and accidental industrial spillages. If waste practices don't change and economies and populations continue on their present trajectories, the mass of plastic likely to flow into the oceans each year will just about double by 2025, the researchers projected.
Fish and other sea animals can ingest large pieces of plastic that clog their intestines or can become entangled in plastic and suffocate, studies show. As the plastic breaks down to smaller pieces, it can be ingested by smaller invertebrates that are the base of the food chain. If a plastic bottle and its cap get into the ocean, it will probably eventually make its way to a part of the ocean like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, where it may be eaten by a bird or sea turtle. In addition, much larger particles like ghost nets, buoys and plastic cables dumped from fishing boats have recently been found in much greater quantities in the GPGP than before.
Is there a solution? A number of quoted arguments
- Waste-to-energy (WtE) or energy-from-waste (EfW) is the process of generating energy in the form of electricity and/or heat from the primary treatment of plastic debris
-Today’s waste-to-energy plants are sophisticated and clean; they demonstrate that controls can be put in place to appropriately manage emissions and byproducts
-Urging supermarkets to stop using plastic packaging saving billions of pounds of investment in recycling has failed to resolve the world’s plastic proliferation crisis.
-Recycling of plastic bottles is considered one way to get out of the labyrinth of the negative impact of plastics on the environment.
-But: even though recycling is sold as a flagship green practice, recycling itself isn’t an environmentally innocent process. The collected bottles need to be washed, which causes water pollution and requires even more electricity
-Incineration: there’s a real possibility that some of those microparticles will be entrained into the air and they will be carried around and we will end up breathing them.”
-If plastic is incinerated, it may release highly toxic chemicals, called dioxins, and even more carbon dioxide than if it were landfilled.
-Biodegradable plastic is plastic that decomposes naturally in the environment. This is achieved when microorganisms in the environment metabolize and break down the structure of biodegradable plastic. The end result is one which is less harmful to the environment than traditional plastics.
-The real solution is avoiding disposable packaging altogether. Bottled drinks are low-hanging fruit for change because they are so easy to replace with reusable drink bottles.
-This approach of preventing waste before it happens is called zero waste. Because most environmental impacts are embodied in the manufacturing of the product, we need to prevent environmental harm before it happens. This is a far superior approach to just treating symptoms of the problem, as we’ve seen recycling unsuccessfully try to do for many years.
Sources and links
Andrady AL, Neal MA (July 2009). "Applications and societal benefits of plastics". Philos. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B Biol. Sci. 364 (1526): 1977–84.