Is plastic the potent of disaster we are all told it is? Or has it been one of the most important materials mankind has ever created?
Let's take a very quick look.
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What is the problem with plastic?
Plastic is incredibly useful material. In fact, humans have been making forms of plastic for thousands of years.
The first recorded use was around 1600 BC when Mesoamericans were processing natural rubber into balls and figurines. But it wouldn't be until the Industrial Revolution that synthetic materials that we would commonly call plastics began to appear.
The first 'plastic', Bakelite, was developed in 1907, and the plastics have become ubiquitous ever since. But plastic's strength as a material is also pretty bad for the environment.
Plastics are very hard to break down naturally. They have a very slow decomposition rate in the environment.
The fact plastics are relatively cheap to make has, in part, helped fuel their contribution to our so-called modern-day "throw-away" society. It is simply cheaper and more convenient to buy something new than attempt to repair it.
Especially if its made of plastic.
Largescale dumping of plastic has been widespread around the world. Because it takes so long to degrade, it has, over time, accumulated to large levels in the environment, notably in the world's oceans.
Some scientists have estimated that there will be more plastic by volume than fish in around 30 years or so if nothing changes. As of 2014 global tonnage of plastic waste topped somewhere in the order of 311 million.
This amount of discarded plastic is problematic, to say the least. Microplastics end up in animals and enter the human food chain. Larger plastic gets stuck in animals’ stomachs, blocking their digestive tracts and ultimately killing them.
What is the main use of plastic?
Plastic, in some form or other, is used in pretty much everything today. You can probably think of several examples without too much effort.
It has many uses as commodity items and in healthcare and industry.
Our clothes are made from them (nylon), bottles, chairs, pipes, food packaging, and casings for many electronics are also made out of plastic. To name but a few.
Whilst there is a vast array of uses for plastic in the world, they do tend to fall into one of two main categories. These are thermoplastics and thermoset plastics.
The former can be melted down and reused many times over, the latter has more limited uses. Thermoplastics tend to be the most common and are actually the most useful for the world, not to mention for recycling and sustainability.
Not all plastics are bad
Plastics have certainly had a 'bad rap' in recent years, but this might be a bit hasty. In fact, plastics are vitally important for healthcare and medicine.
Blister packs, syringes, blood bags, pill sheaths, heart valves, to name but a few, are made almost exclusively from plastics. Plastics are lightweight and durable, not to mention cheap which is great for rolling out utilities around the world (including the internet and water supplies).
They also happen to be relatively better for the environment than some other materials. Plastics are easier to melt (require less energy) than metal, they emit fewer carcinogens than MDF, and synthetic fibers have arguably been better for the environment than the cotton industry.
At the end of the day, plastic is both "good" and "bad", but so are many other things in the world. What needs to happen is for us to learn from previous mistakes using plastic and use it more wisely in the future.
Let's not "throw the baby out with the bathwater", as they say.