The Plastic Journey: To Reuse, Recycle or Say No to Plastic?
In October 2017, disturbing photographs of plastic and styrofoam floating in the Caribbean Sea near the island of Roatan were posted on social media. Earlier in 2017, a substantial amount of plastic was discovered in the South Pacific area off the coast of Chile & Peru. Hendersen Island, also located in the South Pacific region is estimated to be covered in 38 million pieces of trash. Thus, proving to be the most plastic polluted island on the Earth.
The most advantageous characteristic of plastic is that it is made from a group of materials that can be shaped when soft and then hardened to retain the shape. Manufactured plastics, i.e. synthetic plastics also known as man-made polymers, are produced by natural products or by synthesis of primary chemicals generally coming from natural gas, oil or coal. Plastic was first invented in 1862 in the form of cellulose to avoid the use of natural polymers such as tortoise shells, amber and animal horns.
Plastics gained popularity soon after the First World War. It was used as a substitute for glass, wood and metal during the challenging times as it was cheap and easy to manufacture. To date, new types and forms of plastics with improved characteristics continue to be developed and used. Use of plastics in our day to day lives is extremely common, to the point of dependency.
Most Common Uses
It has continued to be used in innumerable ways despite of the focus on its effect on human health and the environment. It has versatile characteristics, is cost-effective and is used in production of alternative materials like glass or metals. The uses and benefits of plastic in pharmaceutical and medicine industry are also prevalent. Polymers are used in manufacturing various kinds of medical instruments and equipment. The most common examples in this domain are disposable syringes and sterile packaging. Due to its durability and resistance to corrosion, plastic is very commonly used in the construction industry. The light weight of plastic, hence it’s heavy use in transportation industry, for example, air crafts. Other areas which use plastics prominently include packaging, electrical and electronic devices, agriculture, sports industry and for leisure purposes too.
According to a research conducted by the Association of Plastics Manufacturers, published by ISO, China produces 28% of the overall plastic production and Asia accounts for more than 49% of worldwide production. Europe contributes about 19%. A study conducted by researchers from the University of California discovered that more than 9 billion tons of plastics has been produced since the 1950s.
Effect on the Environment
Owing to its non-degradable properties, substantial quantities of plastic waste ends up in landfills, and natural terrestrial areas. Unfortunately, due to the low density of plastic it flows downstream and ends up polluting freshwaters, aquatic life and ocean waters. One of the first accounts of plastic in environment was reported in the early 1960s when plastic was found in seabirds’ carcasses along the shorelines after being ingested. Due to plastic accumulation in terrestrial areas like forests and grasslands, wildlife also faces a threat of plastic ingestion and entanglement. As plastic is often mistaken as food and ingested, it can result in in impaired movement, reduced reproductive output, lacerations, ulcer and even death.
Needless to say, plastic pollution is also a hindrance to the natural aesthetic of a place. Considering that more than 8 million tons of plastic are dumped in our oceans every year, according to a report published by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in The World Economic Forum last year, the ocean will contain at least 937 million tons of plastic and 895 million tons of fish by 2050. Due to its versatile properties and malleable nature, plastic production has increased to astounding 300 million tons and more astoundingly half of the plastic produced is for once off disposable use only.
Effect on Humans
Several chemicals that are used in plastic production are claimed to be toxic and pose potential health risks to humans. Studies and experiments using laboratory animals or model organisms suggest adverse effect of these chemicals. These harmful chemicals present in plastics are known to cause neurological and immune damage, asthma, multiple organ damage, birth defects and even cancer.
Despite all its negative properties, plastics have transformed everyday life and its consumption is incessantly increasing. Having said that, challenges offered by the increased usage of plastic can be met by being socially aware and responsible.
- As plastic is inexpensive and widely available, it can be overused. Start by reducing your daily plastic consumption. For example, carry a small fork instead of taking a disposable one with takeaways. Similarly, carry a paper bag or reusable bags instead of disposing them off. Every small effort counts.
- Packaging for bottled water and other drinks are mostly recommended for sole use as reusing can affect human health. Therefore, every time a bottle of water is bought, it ultimately ends up in the landfills or causes air pollution by releasing toxins when recycled.
- There’s a lot that can be done at an individual or a household level. However, businesses play a role in creating plastic pollution as well. Organisations need to be aware and socially responsible. More options to switch to for packaging or storing items should be considered.
PLA or poly lactic acid is manufactured out of plant-based resources such as sugar cane or corn starch. It is, therefore, bio-degradable and is known as ‘the green plastic’. It is more environmental friendly than ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) which is derived from oil. Use of ABS due to its durability and life span is hard to avoid in some cases.
Re-Use or Recycle Plastic
One solution going forward is using recycled plastic so that it does not contribute towards environmental pollution as much as it does at present. Plastic can be reused in many applications such as construction practices and packaging. Recycled plastic is also increasingly used in building fences, signs and walkways. Recycled plastic from water or soft-drink bottles is termed as polyester fibre. Polyester fibre is used to create polyester fleece clothing and filling for coats, duvets etc. Plastic can also be recycled to be used in manufacturing of street furniture like seating and tables.
KWS, a market leader in road construction, is working in collaboration with Wavin and Total to use recycled plastic in development of plastic roads. The Plastic Road concept includes the construction of modular and hollow road structures. Construction of plastic roads using recycled plastic has less of a carbon footprint than creating traditional road structures. Plastic roads also have longer lifespans and increased durability. Hence, government spending will reduce on re-construction or maintenance on roads.
Built in 2002, Jambulingam Street in Chennai, India is one of the world’s first plastic roads. It has been made from polymer glue that is derived from shredded waste plastic. Cumbria is United Kingdom’s first county to try this new concept in late 2016. Polymer glue has been used in the A6 road or Route 6. After the success of plastic resurfacing on A6, the Cumbria County Council will be implementing the same process on the A7 as well. The amount of plastic estimated to be used for the A7 works, is equivalent to off-setting 500,000 plastic bottles.
Recycling Technologies uses thermal cracking technology to convert plastic that is disposed of in landfills or incinerators, into much more valuable low sulphur hydrocarbon which is well suited to a range of industrial activities. It is a low sulphur crude oil equivalent and can be used as fuel in ships and other marine vehicles. It can also be used as a potential substitute to paraffin wax in many industries.
Governments all over the world must take regular action to ban the sale of plastic bags. Taxes can be generated from stores that sell them to discourage this practice. In 2002, Bangladesh government was the first to do so. Since then, many other countries such as China, Taiwan, Rwanda, Macedonia and recently, Kenya (August 2017) have also applied similar bans. Many European and American countries promote reusable shopping bags.