There’s no doubt about it, plastic is becoming a serious global problem. Of all the plastic that humanity has ever produced, only 9% has been recycled. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, among other studies, believe that by 2050, there could be more plastic in our oceans than fish.
So what exactly is plastic? Why do we use it? Why has it become such a problem? And, most crucially, what can we do to change our relationship with it?
Let’s start with the basics.
What is plastic?
Plastic is a cheap and versatile material used in everything from food packaging to electrical appliances. It is extremely durable and long-lasting and is used in pretty much every production industry on the planet. Most plastics are derived from substances like crude oil and petroleum, and are created through an intensive chemical process called polymerisation.
So how does this process work?
First, raw materials such as crude oil are extracted from the Earth. This is often done through drilling into the Earth to reach underground reservoirs. Then, these crude oils need to be refined. They are heated in a furnace and then distilled in oil refineries. This sorts the heavier crude oil from the lighter chemicals (called monomers) that will eventually become plastic.
These chemical monomers, such as propylene and naphtha, are then processed through two different methods to make different types of plastic. These processes are called polymerisation and polycondensation.
Polymerisation involves connecting monomers together in chains and mixing them through a catalyst. Peroxide is a common example of a catalyst. This process creates materials such as polystyrene, which is then used in packaging as either foam or hard plastics such as yoghurt pots.
Polycondensation also involves joining monomers together in larger groups, whilst removing elements such as water. This process gives us products such as polyester and nylon, both of which are often used in clothing.
A brief overview of the history of plastic
In 1907, Belgian-American chemist Leo Baekeland created Bakelite, which was the first known plastic made from synthetic materials. Bakelite was a popular material for the production of telephones, radios, kitchenware and firearms due to its heat resistance and ability to not conduct electricity. In the 1920s, PVC (also known as polyvinyl chloride) began to be commercially produced.
But it was the advent of mass production after World War II that really turned plastic into the do-it-all material that it is today. Polystyrene was invented in 1954, while polypropylene began to be produced in 1957. Polyethylene terephthalate, also known today as PET, proved a capable replacement for glass and became the main material for producing plastic bottles.
These new materials are still the basis of the plastic industry today. PVC is used to create pipework, guttering, and parts of doors and windows. PET is still used to make drinks bottles, as well as polyester, which is used in the production of textiles. Polystyrene is a popular packaging material, and is used across a wide range of industries.
So plastic certainly is versatile and has a lot of practical applications.
Plastic: The good
For all its damage and environmental impact, plastic does have some brilliant uses, and it has undoubtedly changed the course of human development. Plastic rose in popularity because it is a cheap, versatile, and lightweight material. It can also be easily engineered to fill a ton of different roles such as creating products that need to be heat resistant or waterproof.
In some cases, plastic is absolutely necessary, and other alternatives would be potentially harmful or damaging. One example of this is in medicine and scientific research. Single-use plastics used in medicine and clinical applications include syringes, sample bottles, medical gloves, and face-masks. In these instances, preventing samples from being contaminated and surviving to reach the place they will be used or studied is vital. Quite simply, plastic is the best material for these situations. By contrast, glass is a fragile and more expensive choice.
One point to plastic.
Getting rid of plastic drastically would also completely destabilise our food chain. Plastic packaging allows foodstuffs to be distributed across the globe whilst protecting it from spoiling and contamination. If food supplies can survive long distances without spoiling, not only does it lower the cost (and increase the variety) of food on our shelves, but they can also be stockpiled and deployed where they are needed most as emergency rations, especially in developing countries or as responsive aid in disaster zones.
It could be said that by using plastic to transport things like medicines and research samples, thousands of lives have been saved across the world. Being able to rapidly and safely deploy medicine for diseases such as malaria or cholera, as well as the creation of vaccines for more emerging challenges such as Covid-19, has been made possible by plastic.
Plastics also played a pivotal role in one of the greatest scientific achievements of mankind; space exploration. Space suits use a lot of different types of plastic to fulfil needs that other materials wouldn’t be able to achieve. Tools used in space need to be reliable, durable, and lightweight – like an astronauts helmet.
If it weren’t for plastic, putting a man on the moon might have been impossible.
Plastic: The bad (and the ugly)
But despite what it has enabled us to achieve, most of our plastic use is still incredibly harmful and damaging to both the environment and to ourselves.
There are several ugly truths about plastic that reveal the true impact of this ubiquitous material.
Plastic is designed to last forever, meaning that it doesn’t naturally break down when we’ve finished with it. As a result, the majority of plastic ends up in either landfill or the environment. The chemicals present in plastics gradually leach out while in landfill, potentially polluting the soil and even reaching groundwater sources. The United States alone generated 42 million metric tons of plastic waste in 2016.
This may be good for durability and versatility of uses, however it’s pretty devastating for the planet.
A huge amount of plastic ends up in our oceans. At least 8 million tonnes of plastic waste enters the ocean every year, and marine life is inevitably suffering the consequences. Whales and turtles often die because they ingest plastic. As it can’t be digested or broken down, plastic waste effectively blocks the digestive tracts of these animals, causing illness, and ultimately death.
So what are some of the products most to blame for the most damaging and common problems with plastic?
Well, single-use plastics are undoubtedly the biggest culprits in this regard. Things like plastic drinking straws, plastic-lined takeaway cups, and plastic bags are some of the most notorious everyday examples.
The numbers are staggering. It is estimated that 25.3 billion plastic straws are used in Europe every year. In the U.S, around 100 billion plastic bags are used every year. Only 1% of these are recycled.
In terms of plastic waste produced by economic sectors, the biggest offender by a huge margin is the packaging industry. According to 2015 statistics, the packaging industry produced 141 million tonnes of plastic waste pollution. That was almost half of the total waste plastic produced by industries across the globe. By contrast, the textiles industry, the second biggest producer, accounted for 42 million tonnes.
According to an annual survey from Break Free From Plastic, the world’s biggest corporate plastic polluter in 2020 was Coca Cola. The drinks company had their branding identified on 13,834 pieces of plastic in the survey. That was more than runners up Nestle (8,633 pieces) and Pepsi Co (5,155 pieces) combined. The participants of the survey collected nearly 350,000 pieces of plastic across 55 countries. 63% of this plastic carried a corporate brand label.
Why plastic matters
As you may have already guessed, it is perhaps the environment that suffers most from our over-dependence on plastic. As mentioned, our oceans are becoming clogged with plastic, which affects both humans and marine life while the huge quantities of plastic accumulating in landfills across the world are also causing an ever-increasing number of problems for our health.
Microplastics, which are tiny fragments of plastic that has been partially broken down or recycled, are probably one of the biggest dangers in regards to these negative environmental culprits. A study led by the University of Manchester found that there are up to 1.9 million pieces of microplastics per square metre of the ocean floor. Microplastics (sometimes called nanoplastics when they’re smaller still) are small enough to be consumed by plankton. These tiny creatures form the very basis of the marine food chain, which means there is a significant chance that any fish we catch to eat also contain microplastics of some kind further along the food chain.
Plastic can take thousands of years to decompose, and the majority of the plastic we use everyday ends up in landfill. Unsurprisingly, this can have detrimental effects on our health. A German study suggests that microplastic pollution in soils could be between four and 23 times as prevalent as in the oceans. The same study also suggests that between 80-90% of waste plastic in sewage could end up in the sludge, which is often used as fertilizer for agricultural crops. This could mean that a huge amount of the food we eat, either from land or the ocean, contains microplastics.
Even when we use plastics, they can potentially be damaging us. When plastic water bottles have been used for a long time, they begin to break down. These microplastics seep into the liquid, which we in turn drink. Chemicals can also transfer from or leach out of the plastics we use, especially when heated in the microwave, which we then touch or use for holding food or drinking liquids. Possible health risks from exposure to different types of plastic include increased risks of cancer, obesity, irritation, lung problems, and diabetes.
People who work in factories that produce plastic products are also more at risk from exposure to chemicals associated with manufacture and processing. One study found that in an automotive factory that used plastics, women under the age of 50 could be up to 400% more at risk from developing breast cancer due to the chemicals involved. Plastics often give off carcinogens, the agents responsible for causing cancer in humans.
Plastic waste is also causing huge issues for local communities around the world, especially in places such as the Caribbean islands. The beaches of these islands have become a literal dumping ground for plastic deposited from the world’s oceans. Some of these countries, like Haiti, have notoriously poor waste collection programs which makes the issue doubly problematic. This results in over 320,000 tons of uncollected plastic waste every year. There is of course, also the Great Pacific garbage patch; a particularly sobering ‘island’ of plastic that covers 1.6 million square kilometres and contains more than 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic.
Alternatives to plastic
To stem the tide of plastic flowing into our oceans and seeping into our soil, we need to find alternative materials. These materials need to fulfil many of the same functions of traditional plastic, but need to be more environmentally friendly both to produce and dispose of.
So what does this look like in practice? Let’s take a look at some leading candidates.
One of the most widely used plastic alternatives is bamboo. A fast-growing grass native to China, bamboo has been used as a versatile natural resource for thousands of years. In the 21st century, bamboo is now being used as an alternative to plastic in products such as clothing, reusable cups and containers. But is it a viable alternative?
Bamboo can be grown quickly, and doesn’t require harmful chemical fertilizers. This makes it an incredibly sustainable resource. It’s completely biodegradable and very cheap to grow. To be turned into a material, it is usually beaten down until it becomes a kind of pulp, which can then in turn be spun into fibres.
Sounds great, right? However, there are some problems with using bamboo.
Because bamboo is mainly grown in China, transporting it across the world (to American and European markets), for example, creates a huge carbon footprint. Some products that are marketed as being made from bamboo may also feature other materials such as resin, which is made using the chemical formaldehyde.
Bamboo fibres are also quite rough when the material is utilized in its raw state, and therefore need to undergo a chemical process to make them soft enough to be used in applications such as clothing. This bamboo rayon needs to be treated with toxic chemicals such as carbon disulfide to soften it, which can present health risks to those processing and manufacturing.
Another somewhat surprising natural plastic alternative, scientists have been exploring ways to use fungi to create usable materials. One of these is a promising alternative to polystyrene, created by California-based company Mushroom Packaging. Mushrooms feed on pretty much any kind of biological waste, such as by-products from agriculture.
The mycelium, which is a yeast-like fungus that forms the structure of mushrooms, can be shaped through moulds. The fibres are then baked to prevent them from growing further, resulting in a kind of styrofoam-like natural packaging. This packaging is completely biodegradable and renewable, and can be composted. This practice can also be used to create products such as insulation.
Big brands such as Ikea have already begun experimenting with this potential replacement for plastic.
But what about transforming our current plastics into biodegradable versions that don’t carry the significant landfill baggage of conventional plastic? This could allow us to retain all the benefits of plastic in a more eco-friendly package.
Some approaches to this involve adding things such as Prodegradant Concentrates (PDC’s) to plastics. These additives usually come from metals, which encourage oxidisation to break down the plastic.
Tiny creatures called microorganisms then eat these fragments and turn them into carbon dioxide and water. Sometimes, in the case of plastic bags containing PDC’s, the plastic can break down by about 95% in around four weeks. Other biodegradable plastic approaches include PLA (polylactic acid) polyesters, which are made using processed corn, sugar cane, or wheat.
However, there are still some issues when it comes to biodegradable plastics in this form. With PDC’s, many altered products look the same as standard plastic items, meaning that they may be thrown into our recycling bins. However, the chemicals used to create the additives of PDC’s can potentially damage any products that are made from them. Biodegradable plastics are also incredibly expensive, making them a difficult option to pursue economically – at least for the time being.
So what can we do?
All of us realise that plastic, for all its advantages, is becoming an environmental issue of pretty epic proportions.
So how can we take actions as both individuals and society as a whole to reduce the damage of plastic?
Here are some suggestions, as well as a few things we’ve already started.
Reducing our individual plastic usage is an easy way to make an impact. Many plastic household, everyday products can be replaced with reusable alternatives. Avoid buying bottled water or using single-use coffee cups and instead opt to use alternatives such as bamboo, reusable glass or stainless steel wherever possible.
Ditch plastic shopping bags for reusable bags, or failing this, reuse shopping bags as many times as you can. Replace toothbrushes with alternative versions such as bamboo, checking of course that they contain as much natural bamboo as possible. Use beeswax food wraps instead of cling-film.
Basically if you find yourself using some kind of disposable plastic product in your everyday activities, ask if there’s a better reusable alternative out there that will help you get the job done going forward. There almost certainly is.
Many countries and governments have also taken wider measures to curb our wasteful plastic habits. England has banned the use of plastic straws, cotton buds, and drink stirrers. Many countries around the world have banned single-use plastics such as plastic bags. 170 UN countries agreed to significantly reduce the use of plastics by 2030.