Did you know that there is an annual production of about 300 million tons of plastic, not even ten percent of which is recycled? Have you also noticed the climate change over the past decade and how there could be a connection between plastic production and climate change?
In this article, we explore the causes and effects of plastic production and how it is affecting our environment.
We also explore the possible substitutes that can effectively replace plastic, which, for a fact, is doing more harm than good and their environmental consequences.
Before plastic came into the picture, hardened clay, glass, cloth, and some kinds of moldable materials such as rubber, tree wax, were used for packaging.
They did a good job at doing what they were supposed to do: store and protect goods, but with the dramatic rise in population with time, there was a dramatic increase in the demand for these commodities.
This problem escalated the need for packaging materials to transport them from one place to another.
The existing packaging materials for this purpose were not ideal as humongous amounts were to be transported.
Either they were too heavy, adding to the weight of the good or they weren’t protective enough.
Higher the weight the good, harder the transportation process got.
The harder the process, the more expensive it got.
This problem forced scientists to look for an alternative that would solve problems that the existing packaging materials faced.
Plastic was their solution to this problem.
It came into existence by accident in 1989, but its use grew popular around the 1950s when high-density polyethylene was created to replace its predecessor- polyethylene.
Not even a single molecule of plastic exists in nature, and it takes about a thousand years to decompose.
The environmental threats associated with plastic did not become apparent until the 1960s with the observance of excessive plastic debris in the oceans.
Our reliance on plastic has increased to such an extent that modern life may very well be impossible without plastic.
Why is plastic packaging still in use?
To understand this, we need to know why even after all these years; plastic packaging is still extensively used.
Compared to all commonly available packaging materials, plastic is the cheapest.
The cheap packaging material allows for a minimal increase in the value of the packaged good.
It provides reasonably good protection and keeps them safe from the external factors that may otherwise cause harm to the packaged product.
They don’t break or get damaged easily.
Falls from places or slight trauma will not damage the plastic packaging.
They provide great protection.
Plastic containers or plastic based packing material can be put on top of each other or tossed around even, without having to worry about damaging the good.
This trait aids the transport of goods.
Different types of plastic packaging have differing longevity.
Plastic takes about a thousand years to break down.
Plastic is made up of entirely synthetic compounds that do not exist in nature; hence, they don’t just wear off with time, lasting for extensive periods undamaged.
Most plastic-based packaging materials weigh next to nothing in comparison to their commonly available alternatives- glass, wood.
The light-weightedness of plastic is of great benefit because it aids in the easy mobility of the goods.
Plastic packaging exists in a lot of forms.
They can vary from flexible and adaptable types to sturdy, resilient types such as plastic containers.
This variability in the structure provides the manufacturers with various options from which they can choose.
Requires less energy to recycle
Plastic requires lesser energy to recycle compared to its alternatives such as glass.
Instead of disposing of plastic, it can be recycled and reused.
Recycling them can turn them into other useful products that can lower the cost of the product, that otherwise is produced from scratch.
Ease of transportation
Plastic due to all of the above-stated reasons makes the transportation process easy.
The plastic packaged goods do not get damaged when put on top of each other or squished together- this, however, does not apply to all goods but applies to quite a few products.
The pros though persuasive of the usefulness of plastic, but it is known for a fact that the cons exceedingly outweigh the advantages of using plastic-based products.
Carbon footprint and Plastic
Carbon dioxide released in the environment as a result of human activities Is referred to as carbon footprint.
Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas- gases responsible for global warming.
These gases warm the globe by trapping heat.
The production of plastic releases Carbon dioxide in excessive amounts in the atmosphere which pollutes the environment and like other greenhouse gases trap heat.
The carbon footprint associated with a kilogram of plastic bags is about 6-kilograms of carbon dioxide.
Man, on average, uses up to 0.5 kilos of plastic per day.
Burning these plastic bags also emits carbon dioxide into the air.
Annual plastic production is around 381 million tons, whereby 5 or so trillion pieces of plastic are polluting the waters around the world.
Plastic though is recyclable, but it is reported that over 90 percent of the existing plastic in the world has never been recycled.
Different countries contribute to varying amounts of plastic.
China is a huge country with a population of about 1.3 billion people.
It is one of the greatest producers of plastic based products because of its massive manufacturing sector.
It is also because China, for decades, has been the plastic dump for developed countries who export it to China, which then it recycles.
China It has its wings spread all over the world.
Annually the country is reported to produce 59.8 tons of plastic.
The United States generates over 37.83 million every year.
Germany is responsible for an estimated 14.48 million tons of plastic per year.
But Germany has one of the highest recycling rates on the planet.
Plastic is not an environment-friendly material.
It pollutes the oceans where they invade the space of the species living in these waters.
The land is not spared of this as well.
Animals choke on these sturdy materials and may cause them to die.
Sunlight over long periods, break the molecules of plastic which poisons the soil affecting the fertility of the land.
The awareness regarding the dangers associated with plastic led China to announce in 2018 that it would no longer accept the world’s plastic garbage.
Their reason for rejecting it was that plastic, in large amounts, is hazardous and can potentially hurt the environment.
The plastic imports to China since then have decreased to 90%.
The threats associated with plastic have become apparent over time, and scientists are working on finding alternatives for plastic.
Some of these alternatives are already in the works.
The introduction of plastic packaging had changed things for the better, but it took a hit on mother Earth and backtracking from the horrible decision made in the 60s is proving to be a task which is more complicated than initially anticipated.
Plastic is the most commonly used packaging material produced in bulk to move goods from one place to another and to protect them from the external conditions.
The awareness with time has risen regarding the plastic problem, but people are finding it hard to economically replace these with alternatives that will work as well as plastic.
A few alternatives are already in the works and are playing their part in reducing threats associated with plastics.
Some of these are as follows:
Biocomposites are promising alternatives to the plastic problem.
They compose renewable, organic fillers in the matrix of plastic, including polyethylene and polypropylene.
These fillers may include fibers and starch derived from wood, hemp, jute.
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Natural organic fillers substitute the otherwise petroleum-based content in the matrix.
Biocomposite plastics can be customized to change the physical appearance and alter the performance required of it to execute.
The purpose of these is to manipulate the properties and maintain a balance between economy and ecology
Sugar is naturally made up of sugarcane after it is processed.
As a result of this processing a few by-products are produced- Bagasse is one these by-products.
Bagasse is composed of lignin, cellulose, and hemicellulose.
Though initially used as a fuel, it is now being used as a substitute for plastic due to its malleable properties.
It is easily moldable, and its shape can be altered.
Bagasse is compostable, which means that it can naturally breakdown without leaving toxins behind.
It is also biodegradable.
It is malleable in its raw form, but the products it produces are not flexible and are sturdy.
Therefore making it suitable to be used for packaging materials such as food.
It is hence sustainable and has proven to be an excellent substitute for plastic.
Liquid wood is a biopolymer and is entirely biodegradable.
The manufacture of liquid-wood includes a combination of lignin and water and then exposing it to high pressure and temperature, transforming the substance into a flexible material.
This flexible material is highly malleable and durable; thus can be molded into any shape.
It is made up of the by-products of wood hence making it very easy to recycle them.
Their performance is very similar to that of the traditional plastic minus the environmental threat that comes with it.
Before plastic, glass was used to contain and protect goods.
Glass though has its cons, such as the added weight of glass carrying the good.
Glass is also relatively fragile and is easily breakable.
It also costs more, but the pros outweigh the cons.
Glass can be recycled countless times, which allows the smooth transformation of older glass into new glass-based products.
They have a smaller carbon footprint and last long without damaging the environment, making them a suitable alternative to plastic.
Chicken feathers are composed of keratin, a protein which is both durable and robust like plastic.
Plastic made from chicken feathers can be used to make the products that replace petroleum-based plastic products.
This plastic is also highly biodegradable and thus has a smaller carbon footprint relative to its petroleum-based plastic.
Plastic packaging is problematic because it does not break down naturally.
There is excessive production of plastic, and not even 10% of the total amount produced is recycled.
This waste does not go to landfills either and ends up existing in nature for an indefinite period.
Even if it does end up in landfills, the dumps are not maintained, and thus piles of plastic remain for hundreds of years.
When it does break down, it breaks down into microparticles that release toxic materials into the environment.
Plastic debris is polluting our environment and threatening the lives of both human beings and wildlife.
The alternatives to plastic are biodegradable and are eco-friendly.
Biodegradable plastics are plastics that naturally break down.
Their decomposition does not release harmful chemicals into the environment.
This dramatically reduces the emission of gases that cause global warming, namely greenhouse gases.
They are broken down by bacteria that are naturally occurring.
Pollution due to the accumulation of plastic waste is thus exponentially reduced.
Plastic manufacturing requires the use of BPA, which in the past was used to make goods such a plastic bottles, sports equipment.
Another chemical, namely Phthalates, makes plastic soft.
These compounds are known to harm the human reproduction cycle.
Biodegradables do not require the use of such harmful ingredients hence eliminate the risks associated with their use.
These alternatives require lesser energy for their manufacturing, which is released into the environment on their breakdown.
Only 9% of the currently reported 32 million tons of plastic waste is recycled, with the rest going to landfills or staying in the environment posing a constant threat to the marine and wildlife.
Depending on the method biodegradable plastics take about 36 months to completely breakdown, ceasing to exist.
It does not leave any waste behind decreasing the pressure on the waste stream.
The alternatives to plastic are not perfect, but they are a step forward in the right direction.
Plastic was introduced only about a hundred years ago, but it has taken the world by storm with every industry in the world relying on plastic.
Biodegradable plastics are not free of problems.
They require specific weather conditions to decompose in hence can be rather high maintenance.
Sprayed natural products with herbicides and pesticides, make up these biodegradable plastics.
The industry does not keep a check on this; hence, they do not account for the chemicals used in them, exposing consumers to health risks.
Despite the cons associated with the alternatives, they are still better than the usage of petroleum-based plastic that is currently the biggest threat to the well-being of Mother Earth.
As responsible citizens of the world, we must do the right thing to safeguard our planet.
The plastic problem is real and needs solving.
We need to start making smart decisions before we lose the planet that houses us to a problem that can and should be controlled.