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A deep dive into plastics

A deep dive into plastics

Why it was the “miracle material” and why that makes it so harmful

History 

Plastic is everywhere. Not only is it wrapped around most foods and products we buy, it’s also found in most of our clothing in the form of polyester fibre. Although this material has become integrated into our daily lives, the widespread use of plastic only began around 1950, after the end of World War II. The plastic manufacturing industry needed to find another use for the material after the demand from the military halted. Cue nylon tights, Tupperware, and the start of the world’s obsession with a single-use, throwaway lifestyle!

The use of plastic has increased drastically in the years since 1950 because of its versatility across different sectors and applications. The properties that make plastic the “miracle material” are the same properties that make it so harmful to our environment. Its durability makes it virtually impossible for it to break down naturally, and as a result, it accumulates in the natural environment as humans continue to produce this material with no viable disposal strategy in place. Additionally, the components of plastic (the monomers ethylene and propylene) are derived from fossil hydrocarbons, making the extraction process extremely carbon-intensive. 

Plastics today

Today, plastics have found their way into most aspects of our lives. However, their largest market is the packaging industry; where these materials are designed for immediate disposal. In our linear economy, packaging and single-use products are designed to be flexible, durable, and protective – but then immediately thrown away. As consumers, we are expected to “dispose properly” of these plastics by recycling them. This puts the onus on the consumer to handle the plastic pollution problem, meanwhile, the corporations that are producing the plastic are never held responsible for the end-of-life fate of these materials that they are pumping into the global economy.  

A study from 2015 conducted by some of the world’s top Industrial Ecologists and researchers observed a gap in our knowledge when it comes to the end-of-life fate of plastic. To address this lack of understanding the researchers performed the first global analysis of all mass-produced plastics ever manufactured to answer the question: where is this plastic really ending up? We have recycling, right? So it can’t be that bad...

However, these researchers found that as of 2015, 6,300 million metric tons (Mt) of plastic waste had been generated. Of that 6,300 Mt of waste produced, “12% was incinerated, 79% was accumulated in the natural environment, and only 9% has been recycled.”

Although recycling was thought to be the solution to plastic waste, we see that with only 9% of all plastic ever created being recycled, this is not a viable solution. By 2050, these researchers estimate that there will be 12,000 million metric tons of plastic waste in landfills and the natural environment. 

The problem with recycling 

Recycling, in theory, seems feasible, but there are fundamental issues associated with recycling plastics. For one, plastic quality degrades each time it is melted down and repurposed, so recycling does not change the fact that plastic will eventually need to be disposed of. In order for recycling to be effective, it needs to displace the primary production of plastic, which has not happened historically, as virgin plastic production only continues to increase. Even when plastic is recycled, in many cases that process can only occur once or twice before the plastic ultimately ends up in a landfill or the natural environment.  

Other options for the disposal of plastic are incineration or discarding plastic into a contained, managed system. With incineration, issues of air and soil pollution and energy use arise that can contribute to climate change and human health issues. With disposal it’s an issue of space; because plastic does not biodegrade, it can last in the environment anywhere from 400-1000 years, and even then it only breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces that are often mistaken for food by wildlife.

The best way to help with plastic pollution is to not create it in the first place: REFUSE PLASTICS!

    References

    Geyer, R., Jambeck, J. R., & Law, K. L. (2017). Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made. Science advances3(7), e1700782.
    Jambeck, J. R., Geyer, R., Wilcox, C., Siegler, T. R., Perryman, M., Andrady, A & Law, K. L. (2015). Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean. Science347(6223), 768-771.