Plastics and sustainable future – is it possible?

The disposal of plastics is a worldwide issue. They are practically indestructible in natural conditions, yet are widely discarded on a global basis. Every year, the world generates approximately 359 million metric tons of plastic. Nature is unable to address the volume of their disposal at a rate quick enough to avoid harm to living beings.

Plastics are well acknowledged to be an unsustainable material. And, while plastics are undeniably a major issue, they do not have to be. Our linear economic model has a major flaw: goods are produced, consumed, and then discarded. This model implies infinite economic expansion and ignores the planet’s finite resources.

The world generates more than 350 million metric tons of plastics every year, a startling figure that is anticipated to increase to 1,800 million tons by 2050, and yet 60 percent of all plastic ever made has been discarded in landfills or the oceans. The problem is so severe that it is predicted that by 2050, plastic in our oceans will outnumber all fish.

When plastics were first designed 50 years ago, they were never meant to be degradable

Stuart Rowan, Barry L. MacLean Professor for Molecular Engineering Innovation and Enterprise at the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME)

Due to the environmental impact of their improper disposal, there is growing pressure to rethink our use of, and dependency on, plastics – especially single use plastics.

Since the BBC’s Blue Planet II program showed the accumulation of plastics in the ocean in late 2017, there has been a backlash against their use, with some even calling for the development of a plastic-free planet.

While plastics are undeniably harmful to the environment, they also improve our lives and contribute to global progress. Because of their lightweight composition, high barrier qualities, and ductility, they assist reduce carbon emissions and food waste, thereby offering a net positive to the environment.

Many technologies critical to lessening our reliance on fossil fuels will rely on plastics in the future. Plastic composites and adhesives are required for wind turbine blades, whereas batteries use plastics in their housing and may even use them as electrolytes and other components. Plastics are also commonly used in home insulation, which reduces energy consumption, and they play important roles in the building industry as pipes and conduits, cladding, seals, adhesives, and gaskets.

We use plastics because they can do things other materials cannot. We have an opportunity and an obligation to think about how we can re-design plastics to make them fully sustainable and fit for purpose, both for existing applications and for those we will need tomorrow. In the process, we must aim to reduce and even reverse some of the damage plastic pollution has already caused. 

Building a new future for plastics will require extensive collaboration across disciplines – including science, engineering, social sciences, policy, regulation and business.

Professor Charlotte Williams

Professor Charlotte Williams

University of Oxford, UKon

So maybe plastics aren’t such a bad thing. They can be a step toward a more sustainable way of life. The use of a natural or renewable resource is not always environmentally friendly. A polymeric material’s ecological footprint is smaller than that of natural materials, which place a significant demand on arable land, clean water, fertilizers, and regeneration time.

Building materials composed of recycled plastics are not yet widely used in the building sector; prototypes have only been used for demonstration purposes. More investment in the potential of plastics recycling will require political will and widespread environmental awareness.

But, fortunately, the tide is beginning to turn as a result of increased public pressure on the issue of plastic pollution. Because of government and industry commitment to the concept of a circular economy, it appears that there will be an opening in the market – and in people’s thoughts – to welcome plastic projects to replace traditional building materials.

Source: The Coversation || Green dot BIOPLASTIC || University of Birmingham || Royal society of chemistry || uchicago news

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