Last Updated on August 13, 2023 by asifa
Look around you. Your glasses? In plastic. Your computer keyboard? Likewise, just like kitchen utensils, packaging, cosmetics, and even clothing. Worse, we eat plastic: A 2018 study by the Austrian environmental agency discovered that the stools of people living in Europe, Japan, and Russia all contained particles of microplastics!
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What is the impact on our health?
Still tricky to say. Plastic is part of our society. The history of plastics goes back to Antiquity – they were then made with natural polymers, like plant cellulose, milk casein. Their synthetic version, produced from petroleum or natural gas, took off in the 1950s.
Since then, humanity has produced 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic! According to American researchers, 6.3 billion tonnes have already become waste, and 79% of that has accumulated in landfills. However, over time and under the effect of UV, rain, or oxygen, this plastic degrades and breaks into smaller pieces, later found in air, soil, water, and even food.
The real problem with plastic is not that it comes from petroleum, or that it impacts climate change via the CO2 emissions it generates; the problem is that it subsists in the environment!
It takes a hundred to two hundred years to transform plastic into persistent fine particles. The oceans, into which rivers flow, are the first victims. The equivalent of a truckload of plastics would be dumped there every minute. Faced with this time bomb, is there still time to inflect our taste for this resistant, practical, and inexpensive material?
How to replace plastic?
There are specific innovations to replace plastic by the equivalents, including bio-based equivalents, i.e., materials from plant origin, such as corn, wheat, sugar cane, etc. Since 2015, Coca-Cola has distributed 35 billion so-called PlantBottles, made up of 30% polyethylene terephthalate coming from plants. As for polylactic acid, it comes from the degradation of dextrose, a vegetable sugar originating from corn, beet, rice, or even cassava, thanks to bacteria capable of synthesizing lactic acid.
A miracle solution? Not really.
PLA costs about two dollars per kilo against half as much for PE (polyethylene) from petrochemicals. This type of bioplastic has no economic interest for now. It mobilizes land and food resources that could be used to feed the planet! You can’t starve some countries to produce plastic for other countries.
For industrialists, replacing plastic can sometimes be a headache. Plastic worked as a miracle material for fifty years, from construction to space exploration, communications, and food. There are a thousand reasons to explain its success because light, durable, transparent, waterproof, limiting contamination, etc.
For some products, the alternatives are lacking. This is the case of the Bag-in-Box packaging system, these bags filled with wine or fruit juice and placed in cardboard boxes: we do not know how to replace them.
Ditto for household products. Replacing them with large glass cans, which can be stored but are very heavy, does not make much sense: because of this overweight, their transport would emit more CO2, and the results would not be favorable. For each product, you have to look at the environmental impact, from manufacturing to recycling.
Can plastic be recycled efficiently?
Is the reluctance of companies to initiate change still justified? Or should consumers develop new habits creating less plastic waste?
All industrial activity is based on the mass production of short-lived products. Advances that would prevent this are inevitably unwelcome. The idea that we should now focus on the creation of high value-added plastic has not yet taken hold in the sector.
This super-plastic, more resistant and more technical, is that of medical products, such as syringes or blood bags, which we can hardly do without using them. Ditto in construction with electric cables sheathed in plastic is more insulating and safer, and in the automotive industry, the material has made it possible to lighten cars.
Fortunately, the packaging sector is where the alternatives seem easier to develop, which wastes the most plastic, with almost 40% of total consumption. Next came building and construction (20%), automotive (8%), followed by electricity and electronics (5%).
For plastic, recycling is not automatic. In Europe, two-thirds of the plastic waste produced is recovered (incinerated with energy recovery) and one third recycled. It is often presented as a solution. In reality, plastics can be recycled once or twice, but rarely more.
For security (risk of contamination) and technological reasons, very few (5%) are recycled in a closed circuit, that is to say, converted into a material indistinguishable from new plastic. That still doesn’t solve the problem of plastic waste at all.
Beyond packaging, electrical and electronic devices that contain plastic (15%, for example, for a refrigerator) also go through the recycling box. Many contain bromine, an element that makes them less flammable but highly polluting. This is also the case in tools and toys.
However, the sorting of these brominated products should be improved so that this substance is not found in recycled raw materials. Worse, some equipment containing a high content of bromine, such as large household appliances, escape the sorting lines! Besides, recycled plastics often cost more than their new equivalent!