So what, exactly, is a “plastic”?
Plastics are made up of synthetic polymers and a mix of chemicals. The polymers are created by taking monomers, found in oil and gas, and putting them through a polymerization process to produce the polymers needed to create plastic. (Did you get all that?)
These polymers are what make plastic so versatile. At some point in the manufacturing process, plastic can be poured, spun, molded, extruded, or applied as a coating. This ability to manipulate plastic makes it useful for everything from water bottles and plastic bags, to car parts and technology components.
Plastics don’t just give us better tech, they make our lives better in other ways too.
Plastics contribute to public health and safety by giving us sanitary ways to package food and deliver clean water.
Using plastic as packaging for food gives us a safe way to store food and keep it from spoiling as quickly as it would in other packaging materials. It also protects the food during shipping and keeps the quality of the food consistent.
Water is an important resource that can be contaminated in urban areas if it isn’t handled properly. Plastics are used to store and supply clean drinking water to communities, and to help prevent the spread of germs into the water supply. Because plastic is both lightweight and durable, it’s reliable and easy to use in city water control and distribution systems like sewers, irrigation, and drainage systems.
Plastic is a huge part of the innovations we see in the medical field. What would we do without life-saving advancements like IV lines and bags, surgical equipment, monitors, and imaging machines?
Plastic saves energy and uses less material.
Using plastic in building, packaging, and transportation uses significantly fewer materials and fossil fuels in the long-run.
A high strength-to-weight ratio makes plastic a superior storage container when compared to glass, metal, paper, or wood.
Compare a glass soda bottle to a plastic bottle with the same dimensions. Both bottles are strong, but glass will shatter and plastic won’t. And the plastic is lighter in weight, which means less material (and cost) is used to create it.
A comprehensive study published in January 2005, GUA (Gesellschaft für umfassende Analysen GmbH) shows that packaging beverages in PET, instead of glass or metal, reduces energy consumption by 52%.
Plastic is used to save resources, cost, and weight in aircraft, automobiles, construction materials, dishes, toys, televisions, computers, clothing, shoes, food containers, medical equipment, and more.
It’s plain to see that without modern plastic materials, we wouldn’t have the lifestyle and resources we currently enjoy.
As paperless devotees we use our computers and devices to live paperless and help save trees. But considering the plastic we rely on to make tech accessible to us, are we hurting the environment in other ways?
What is the effect of being surrounded by plastic to our health and environment?
The chemicals that make plastic such a versatile material are also the chemicals that cause an impact to our health and our environment. These chemicals easily leach out of the plastic and into the surroundings.
When we finish using a plastic container and we throw it out, we end up with a big problem: A landfill full of plastics that won’t biodegrade quickly or safely.
Different plastics decompose at different rates. The range of decomposition can be from 20 years for a plastic bag to 450 years for a plastic bottle (Source).
During the long slow decomposition process, chemicals leach into the dirt and down into the groundwater.
As the plastic breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces and spreads through the environment, it becomes a threat to a large number of earth’s living creatures who can, unknowingly, ingest it. Once inside an animal’s body, the plastic can block the digestive tract, or leach chemicals into the animal that can lead to death.
Plastic waste in our marine environments can be found from the poles to the equator (Source).
It gets into the oceans and waterways from tourists, sewage overflows, illegal dumping, landfill sites near the coastlines, and accidental industrial spills.
Because there is so much plastic waste in the oceans, marine life is exposed to the risk of swallowing small pieces of plastic or getting tangled up in larger pieces of plastic (like soda rings), which can lead to permanent disabilities or death (Source).
Does plastic pose any risks to human health?
Different types of plastics use different chemicals, like flame retardants, stabilizers, phthalates, bisphenol A, and more. There is a concern that these chemicals can be transferred from the plastic into our bodies and cause problems.
Bisphenol a (BPA) is a chemical found in some plastics. In 1936 scientists called BPA an “environmental estrogen” when they watched the BPA bind to estrogen receptors in female rats and stimulate their reproductive systems. BPA is also linked to negative developmental effects, like reduced survival, low birth weight, reduced growth of offspring early in life, and delayed onset of puberty in male and female rodents (Source).
The concern over how this environmental estrogen affects humans has caused scientists to monitor the amount of these chemicals in human blood and urine. They are using this data to try to determine the effects plastics are having on us. This is an ongoing study, with no definitive answers (Source).
So what’s the solution? Can we live without plastic in our lives? Do we want to?
Plastic has added to our quality of life in so many ways. From technical and medical innovations to safe storage for food and water; the benefits of plastic are easy to see when you look around.
Even though there are health and environmental threats created by using plastic, the trend shows that plastic use is going up worldwide.
Instead of focusing on eliminating plastic from our lives, innovators have started to look for ways to make plastic safer for the environment.
Recycling is an energy-saving strategy. We get the largest benefits from recycling when we look at it as a “material conservation strategy”. One of the materials we look to conserve is carbon.
Carbon is a valuable resource we use to create our electricity. To get this carbon, we burn nonrenewable fossil fuels.
Plastics capture about half of the carbon that is used to produce them.
Instead of burning fossil fuels, certain kinds of carbon-rich plastic waste can be used as a feedstock, to burn as fuel in place of some of our limited natural resources. (Although this is not my favorite solution, our current reliance on fossil fuels is undeniable. Until we make the shift to cleaner methods of energy production, using plastic waste instead of fossil fuels can help preserve nonrenewable resources.)
Here are some other ways plastics can be reused and recycled.
Plastics can be:
- Reused to create the same product again (called regrind use)
- Recycled into resins or glues
- Incorporated into asphalt roads
- Spun into fibers for clothing
- Turned into carpeting
- Made into insulation for jackets and sleeping bags, and much more.
As recycling equipment improves, and innovative people use their imagination and motivation, we will continue to see plastic being reused in innovative ways.
So what’s better than reusing our plastic waste? Plastic that is biodegradable!
Manufacturers and innovators have been making serious progress in the development of biodegradable plastics that can compare in function to oil-based plastics. These plastics are being created largely from renewable natural resources like starch or cellulose.
In 2008 it was estimated that production capacity for biodegradable plastics worldwide was around 350,000 metric tons. (Bioplastics 07/08)
What’s so exciting about biodegradable plastics is, they can be composted.
In the UK there are more than 300 composting sites that collect household waste, commercial waste, and municipal non-household waste, to create carbon and nutrient rich compost for soil. (http://www.organics-recycling.org.uk/).
Biodegradable plastics could add a large amount of material for composting. Just imagine plastic being added to compost for the benefits it gives. This is a much better picture than a plastic bottle sitting in a landfill for 450 years and leaching harmful chemicals into the ground.
Plastics have an important role in renewable energy.
As we move closer to our goal of 100% renewable clean energy sources, we will need earth-friendly plastics to play an important role in the progress. Plastics can help drive innovative designs to support this effort.
Plastics are already being used in the hardware we rely on to produce renewable energy.
- Lightweight rotor blades made from plastic foams are being used for offshore wind turbines.
- Solar water heaters containing plastics such as PE and PVC can provide up to 65% of a household’s hot water needs.
- The cells on solar panels are coated in plastic to protect them.
- According to an article titled Plastics Help Deliver Renewable Energy, “researchers have been developing a new generation of solar cells in which plastics not only can protect the technology but also can serve as the photovoltaic material itself”.
Without plastic, the use of these technologies would be impossible.
Without a doubt, plastics have made our lives better and have helped advance our technologies.
We also can’t deny the damage they cause to our environment and our health.
The efforts of dedicated scientists and innovators are giving us a future where we can keep plastic in our lives, and also limit the damage that it does to our health and our environment. Innovations in technology like biodegradable plastics will help us get closer to our goal of green energy and a clean environment.
We can do our part to contribute to the responsible use of plastics by staying informed, participating in recycling programs, and choosing to buy biodegradable plastics over oil-based plastics as they come onto the market.
To keep up on the latest innovations in going paperless and clean energy, join us on the #PaperlessMovement.