The future of plastic
Plastic is an integral part of our daily lives. It’s part of our cellphones. It makes up our toothbrushes, our vehicles, our food packaging. Plastic is so engrained in our global society that the modern era has been christened as ‘The Age of Plastic’. It’s impossible to imagine a modern world without the versatile material. Although natural forms of plastic have existed for centuries, plastic as we know it today first emerged with the creation of bakelite in 1907. From then till now, fossil fuel-based synthetic plastics have become part of every industry, every country and every aspect of human life.
But this world-changing material isn’t as harmless as its smooth, shiny appearance. What makes plastic such an attractive material and a defining part of modern life – its durability, versatility and affordability – is also what makes it so harmful. As Tallash Kantai puts it: “Plastic has been indispensable in making our lives easier. Something with the power to do good has spun into a seemingly uncontrollable threat.” At the current rate, plastics will account for 20% of oil consumption by 2050. In fact, there is so much plastic pollution that it’s officially entered the fossil record.
Is carbon pricing the right way to get emissions and finance green energy? Read more here.
According to the World Economic Forum, 8 million metric tonnes of plastic waste is dumped into our oceans every year. Microplastics, the small particles that are broken down from larger plastics, are harmful to life on land and in the seas. Plastic is the dominant item in marine litter (think of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch). Research into microplastics also show that they affect the ability of marine life such as plankton to absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen. This process is integral to regulating global temperatures by making our oceans carbon sinks. The increase in plastic pollution could irreparably damage this process.
So what is the future for plastics? As much as it’s a big pollutant, a world without it is simply unimaginable. Plastic recycling is becoming more commonplace (Australia recently announced it will recycle all its plastic by 2040). The UN passed a resolution to end plastic pollution worldwide and create a legally binding agreement by 2024. SDGs 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production), 14 (Life Below Water) and 15 (Life on Land) are connected to plastic pollution. Life on water and Life on Land are 14 and 15. However, these cure the symptom not the illness. “The focus of the plastic problem, as we have come to see it, is at the waste stage – not the production stage,” says Kantai. Getting to the root of the plastic problem requires rethinking its production.
Enter sustainable polymers. Made from renewable or recycled materials and carbon waste, they use less water and non-renewable energy than fossil fuel-based plastics. They also have less of an environmental impact: they’re less toxic, produce less emissions, and some can be composted and recycled (with the exception of PLA). Granted, sustainable polymers aren’t able to compete with fossil fuel-based plastics on affordability and durability, there has been remarkable progress considering how new sustainable polymers are in the market.
The future can be a world suffocating under an endless wave of plastic. The future can also be one of recycling, reduced consumption and sustainable cycles of production and usage. Our relationship with plastic doesn’t have to be toxic. With the right policies, research and range of options, plastics can be much greener than it is now.
Ghazan Global believes in a sustainable future through our investment in Plastrans. To find our more about the company’s work in sustainable plastics, visit their website here.
1.Carrington, D. (2019, September 04). After bronze and iron, welcome to the plastic age, say scientists. Retrieved November 17, 2022, from https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/sep/04/plastic-pollution-fossil-record
2.Freinkel, S. (2011). Plastic: A toxic love story. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
3.Kantai, T. (2020). Confronting the Plastic Pollution Pandemic. International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD). http://www.jstor.org/stable/resrep29273
4.The age of plastic: From Parkesine to pollution. (n.d.). Retrieved November 17, 2022, from https://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/objects-and-stories/chemistry/age-plastic-parkesine-pollution#:~:text=Belgian%20chemist%20and%20clever%20marketeer,phenol%2C%20under%20heat%20and%20pressureThcountry and every aspect of human life.
Photo by Emily Bernal from Unsplash