Plastic has become an integral part of our daily lives, with most of the items we use made from this versatile material. From the moment we wake up until we go to bed, we are surrounded by plastic in various forms. While some people propose alternative materials, the reality is that plastic’s durability and versatility are unmatched, making it nearly impossible to replace entirely.
However, what we can do is focus on proper management of plastic waste. In this article series, we’ll explore the importance of plastic in our lives and delve into the different aspects of plastic management, recycling and waste reduction.
Get ready to broaden your understanding of this ubiquitous material and learn about the steps we can take to manage it effectively.
Ever since its inception, the use and production of plastics has seen a dramatic increase. In the 1950s the world produced roughly 2 million tonnes of plastic per year. However, a lot has changed since then. The annual production of plastic as of 2019 has increased 230 times, with production increasing by 460 million tonnes. North America has the highest per capita plastic consumption in the world with 109 kgs; while India’s per capita plastic consumption amounts to 15 kgs.
The shift to the growing dependence on the use of plastic is owing to multiple factors. Not only is production of various plastic goods and packaging more cost effective, plastic is also easy to transport. Its durability and ability to keep contaminants and other elements away from the products it is protecting, also proves to be an important factor. Moreover, the use of plastic in the food industry has also increased the shelf life of food products. Its inert quality does not interact with food, preserving it and reducing the waste of food.
Plastic is everywhere
Employment of plastic being the practical option, the use of plastics in daily life among laymen is inevitable. There is plastic present in every element of life, from the toothbrush in the morning to skin care products and makeup. It has made its way into human life and in a short span of time has become an essential part of living, making replacement of plastic more and more complicated and difficult.
Though plastic is a valuable asset, there is a looming problem with the use, and disposal of plastic products. Humans have now become addicted to the convenience of using single-use plastic. But, what exactly is single-use plastic? Single-use plastic or SUPs, as the name suggests, are plastic products that are only used once, or for a short period of time, before being discarded. SUPs are more likely to be discarded irresponsibly, ending up in landfills and floating through our oceans. Some of the most commonly found SUPs represent 89% of marine litter worldwide. Items including earbuds, rubber, cutlery, straws and most importantly, plastic packaging, are convenient and a no-brainer to use, but are doing the most damage.
What is the current state?
Currently, plastic is everywhere, but what is also present are misconceptions and misinformation about the use of plastic. Through most narratives, plastics are deemed as the enemy of sustainable living, however, the reality is more nuanced than just that. On our journey to a healthier planet, the idea of a villainous plastic acts as a barrier, distracting the people from real contaminants and harm, derailing our progress. Oil spills are one of the biggest concerns to the health of our oceans. This along with overfishing, sewage, mining waste, and so many more, all stand before on the list of threats to our oceans and marine life.
Replacing plastic is not the answer
Plastics are a versatile and widely used material with unique properties such as durability, flexibility, and low cost. While plastic waste is a significant environmental issue, replacing all plastic products with alternatives would be difficult, especially for applications where no viable alternatives exist. Plastics are relatively energy-efficient to produce, easily sterilized, and can protect contents from contamination. Banning plastics may have unintended consequences, such as deforestation and increased greenhouse gas emissions. Over and above this, the urgency to do away with plastic altogether, isn’t the most practical and realistic solution. As plastic doesn’t significantly increase volume or mass during transportation, it is simple to make it thin and light. This reduces emissions. In other words, plastic has a smaller overall environmental impact than materials like heavy metal and thick cardboard. We don’t need to convey a lot of extra mass and volume because plastic can be made to be robust without being heavy. This implies that we can cut back on fuel use, saving money and lowering emissions that are bad for the environment.
Additionally, the plastic industry employs millions of people globally, and banning or replacing plastics could have negative economic consequences. Instead of banning or replacing plastics, efforts should be made to develop new, more sustainable plastics and recycling technologies to reduce waste and improve environmental impact.
Moreover, while attempting to make some change, the world is seeing a shift in the kind of plastic being used. Most businesses are slowly shifting to the production and consumption of bio-based plastics with the intention of degradation. However, though these starch-based or cellulose-based plastics are a promising alternative in the journey to mitigating global warming and the mismanagement of plastic waste, they still have widespread disadvantages that need to be considered.
Given that starch is derived from food sources like maize or potatoes, it may not be a productive alternative during a period of food scarcity. Furthermore, other biopolymers that are used may have disadvantages such as high-water vapor permeability, oxygen permeability, fragility, low thermal resistance, poor mechanical properties, susceptibility to degradation, and a high energy consumption rate during processing that leads to low processability. Additionally, these materials are prone to fungal and bacterial attack, and can initiate the biodegradation process at any point during the product’s life.
These misconceptions of plastic distract from the fact that plastic packaging is a better alternative for the environment than others including glass and metals. The real problem, however, lies not in the use of plastic and the need to replace it, but in the way we manage and discard our plastic.
Effective plastic management
A material that does not decompose or destroy is a valuable resource and can be used endlessly. Making the problem not using plastic itself, but using it irresponsibly.
Most of the plastic we use is discarded after a single use irresponsibly and ineffectively. Not only at the individual level, irresponsible management of plastic also exists at the level of production, causing much more harm than the production itself. Discarded plastic makes its way into our oceans and waterways, our streets and even our forests, harming the flora and fauna.
There are several ways that plastic can enter water and landfills. A clear way to keep plastic out of the ocean requires proper disposal of plastic objects, particularly recycling when it is available. Improving recycling and garbage management globally, especially in nations with weak infrastructure, is the best method to protect the environment.
With the human population expanding quickly and lifestyle demands rising exponentially, a material that can be recycled continuously is very beneficial to both the environment and the economy. Replacing plastic is counterproductive, the solution is to make sure that it is used ethically and recycled correctly.
How can we manage plastic waste
Managing plastic waste is to be done at the personal level as well as production level. Making sure to integrate effective plastic management into school syllabi can be one of the most change-driven solutions. Change starts at a young age and by educating children on plastic waste and effective management, future mismanagement can be minimised.
On an individual level, we can make sure to recycle their plastics and use them for much more than just a single use! Make sure to audit trash bins. This helps track all of the waste, to understand the frequency of discarding waste. Taking a note of usage and disposal can give insights into how to better manage plastic waste.
However, measures need to be taken more proactively at the industrial level, efficiently managing plastic of industries and producers. One such way of managing plastic waste is through the use of polymer additives. Biodegradable additives effectively accelerate the degradation process of polyolefins in the presence of sunlight, making the management and disposal of plastic sustainable and environment-friendly. They are biodegradable, compatible with most polymers, non-toxic and human safe.
Making the environment healthier for our wildlife as well as the human race is a feat we can accomplish. Provided we focus on the right solutions to the right problems. By drawing our attention to adequately manage plastic and plastic waste, with the help of advancement and technology, we can step to a healthier planet.
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