Plastic and sustainability: the great plastic paradox

plastic world

Plastic is the great evil. Or is it? Let us go over the numbers and see just how important and useful plastic is in the modern world, and its major role in sustainability.

We’d be foolish to dismiss the role of plastic in the modern world, in terms of pollution. However, we’d be even more so if we were to overlook the role of plastic in the modern world, in terms of convenience, usefulness, and capability. Look around you; soon you will realise that plastic is everywhere. It is plastic that makes modern life possible, and it is not just the plastic straws that you sip your beverage through, nor the plastic bottle it came in. The keyboard on which these words are typed has plastic keycaps, plastic switches underneath, plastic shell and, lo and behold, a cable covered in flexible plastic polymer. I am being kept warm by a synthetic (plastic) cardigan, and my feet are nice and cosy in (mostly) plastic shoes. In all probability, so are yours.

It is common to see the vilification of plastic in the modern world, mostly targeted around the supposedly “extremely long life” of it. We are constantly reminded of the “evil” plastic, but seldom, if at all, are we made aware of the importance of plastic in the modern world. Plastics are instrumental in literally every single aspect of modern technology, be it the carbon fibre (plastic) bonnet on your new electric car, or the polypropylene (plastic) mesh that keeps your elderly mother’s hernia in place, or even the lining of the bottle your breakfast milk came in. Plastic does make the world go round.

Environmental impact of plastic
It would be naïve to say that plastic has no adverse effects. When we evaluate the impact of plastic, we should also consider the enormous positive impact plastic has.

Plastics are easy to use on an industrial scale, easy to manipulate, take relatively little energy to melt and form, they are durable, lightweight, strong, and they are recyclable. Formula-1 cars realised the benefits of plastics back in the 1980s, when the first carbon fibre monocoques were built, being lighter and stronger at the same time, thereby reducing fuel consumption and increasing the power per weight ratio. This advantage is being introduced to production vehicles in an effort to reduce consumption on a global scale. Even airplane manufacturers are turning to plastics for the construction of wings, turbine blades, and even the fuselage, in an effort to reduce weight, increase efficiency and, ultimately, reduce emissions. Similar technologies are also seen applied to wind turbines for the construction of bigger and lighter blades, but also in solar panels. Plastics have a pivotal role in the “green” energy movement!

Environmental impact of alternatives
While it is easy to be a proponent of the total elimination of plastics, the adoption of alternatives should be examined more carefully with regard to their total environmental impact. For example, plastic bottles could be substituted with glass. However, glass is heavier, dramatically more fragile, requires massively more energy to produce and more energy to transport. Or metal cans. Metal cans require raw materials extracted through mining, an energy-intensive process which can transform entire landscapes, purification of the ores, another extremely energy-intensive process which also usually produces tons of toxic waste by-products, smelting, which usually entails extremely high temperatures. Both glass and metal also endure for hundreds or even thousands of years, some even significantly more than plastics, whereas the energy required to produce them is almost always higher. Paper is another material inexorably considered as (more) ecological than plastic. While this assumption is not entirely inaccurate considering paper in vitro, it is imperative that we also assess the entire life cycle of each material, including its production, usage, as well as disposal, before passing judgment.

Ultimately, plastic is one of the pillars that our world sits upon. Plastic is also crucial in modern technology, with plastic insulating the trillions of kilometres of wires interconnecting our digital world, plastic optic fibres transmitting digital information overseas, and plastic safeguarding our everyday food supply, our medicine, and yes, ultimately even our shampoo and toothpaste.
It would be a true blessing if, magically, we could have materials and substances that have all the benefits of plastics and none of the drawbacks. However, those materials do not exist and, before declaring plastic as “evil”, we should acknowledge its enormous importance as well as its major role in creating a sustainable and “green” world.

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