Right from the toothbrush you use in the morning to the mobile phone in your pocket, everything has some plastic in it. In the 21st century, plastic has become a part of everyone’s day-to-day life. Being an incredibly versatile material, it has enabled us to make exceptionally light and strong products. During the Covid-19 pandemic, not only has plastic helped contain the virus but has also ensured our safety with products like PPE kits, masks, medications, the list goes on. Plastic has improved our lifestyle and helped us evolve and innovate.
But the question that often arises despite the positive impact of plastic is, “Isn’t plastic a pollutant?” Before we dive into that question, let’s understand what plastic is, how it is changing the world, and how it is becoming the pollutant that it is known as now.
So, what is plastic and should we be worried about it?
Plastic is a synthetic material composed of polymers that are moulded when soft and then set into hardened, rigid, or a faintly elastic forms. Making use of heat or chemical reactions could facilitate this. Thermoplastics are polymers that melt upon being heated, whereas thermoset material that will not melt.
Its complex set of structures makes its decomposition challenging, making it the dreaded pollutant it is known to be today. However, the problem with plastic is not necessarily the plastic itself but the way we manage it. Plastic is a highly versatile and durable material, but when poorly managed, it can end up in our surroundings for everlasting periods of time, having a deep-rooted impact on wildlife and the environment. Carelessly and mindlessly, plastic is disposed of in waterways and landfills, and that has made it the pollutant it is.
How is plastic becoming a pollutant?
Plastic becomes a pollutant when it’s not recycled appropriately. It can disintegrate into smaller bits in the environment, but it can never completely decay organically. This may result in chemical or even physical changes that harm aquatic life, wildlife, and people. After a while plastic releases harmful chemicals, such as phthalates and Bisphenol A (widely known as BPA) leach out of plastic particles. These additives are known for their hormonal effects and can seep into our soil and water, which is dangerous to those that consume them. Owing to the negligence of disposal, these tiny pieces of broken-down plastic, known as microplastics, accumulate over time and have become nearly impossible to clean up and recycle.
Microplastics are now everywhere.
Microplastics are plastic particles less than five millimeters (0.2 inches) long. These tiny pieces of plastic are found all over the world, on land, water, and air. They are formed from larger plastic items like bottles, bags, fibres, and packaging materials that break down into tinier pieces but never decompose. In addition, microplastics are also found in polyethylene plastic that is added to health products, beauty products, and even in toothpaste as exfoliants. These microplastics can effortlessly pass through waterways and end up into the ocean. It can be ingested by animals and introduced into the food chain which can cause complications for them, like entanglement or blockages in their digestive systems. However, plastics are not toxic owing to their solubility as they are inert in the ecosystem.
The plastic pollution crisis.
It is estimated that roughly 70% of plastic packaging products degrade into plastic waste in a relatively short period. In India, 9.4 million Tons Per Annum (TPA) of plastic waste is generated, amounting to 26,000 Tons Per Day (TPD). Approximately 60% of this is recycled, with the majority of it being done by the unorganized sector. Though India’s recycling rate is substantially above the global average of 20%, nearly 9,400 tons of plastic waste is still being dumped into landfills or contaminating streams and groundwater resources. Moreover, the use of PVC in pharmaceuticals and its disposal is a major cause for alarm. The practice of burning PVC to dispose it of needs to be diligently monitored through careful segregation and disposal. Some plastics never decompose, while others can take up to 450 years to degrade, making mindful use and disposal of them an integral part of a healthier environment.
But the question to consider here is, is plastic truly the issue? Plastic is an inert material most useful when packaging food and drink products. It does not interact with the food, making it the safest way to transport and reach the public. Plastic can also be produced and distributed at a much more efficient rate, making its substitutes like glass and metal less favourable in the grand scheme of things due to there high density and more weight contribution to packaging.
Many methods we use today involve a targeted use of plastic materials. Our approaches in design are supported by plastic and its assets. The durability and undemanding nature of plastics reduce the process of material replacement. Furthermore, the lighter weight of plastics brings down shipping energy and costs, and their formulation into glue, insulation, and sealant products not only enhances the energy performance of our structures but also supports the design of engineered lumber and sheet products from recycled wood.
There is hope for the future.
It is only when plastic is discarded after its use that it is called “plastic waste.” It is known that plastic waste never degrades and remains on the landscape for several years. But, this can be managed more efficiently.
Cellulose is the safest plastic. The derivative has been on Earth since 1860. Nitrocellulose, cellulose acetate, cellulose acetate propionate, and cellulose acetate butyrate have been known for over 100 years and are fully biodegradable.
With the advancement of technology, disposing of plastic and appropriately managing it in ways that are helpful to the environment is now a very achievable goal. By adding polymer additives that can help break down plastic without causing microplastics and allow it to decompose, plastic’s future and the environment look brighter and more hopeful. When added to the PP-PE waste mixture, these products blend easily, making the polymers more compatible. They transform the material so that it can be recycled and reused effectively.
Using too can efficiently accelerate the process of degradation without using any specific conditions. These additives can degrade plastics faster in sunlight, making plastic easily disposable and eco-friendly. Not only are they compatible with most polymers, but they are also non-toxic and human-safe and can easily become a part of the soil.
Though plastic has been one of the most talked about environmental threats, it is only a threat when it is mismanaged and treated with negligence. Polymer additives are a solution that can shift the perspective of producers and consumers and potentially help bring about a much-needed change.
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