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Plastics – The material we love to hate

The Human story is often split into ‘ages’, defined by the principal material of the time.  We have the Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, and now, the Plastic Age.  Stone is found, bronze alloyed, iron recovered from ore. Plastics, however, reach a new level of sophistication, as they are synthesized- brought into existence, by us! We explicitly design plastic materials to fulfil specific purposes and forge innovations. 

But why do we love to hate that which we create?  Is our chemical mastery really incompatible with the natural World? 

Perhaps instead of rejecting an age-defining wonder material, we should learn to treat it as the treasure that it is instead of trash.

Plastics – The material we love to hate

For hundreds of millions of years our planet’s chemistry and physics followed purely natural mechanisms determined by the universal laws of entropy and thermodynamics.  

Then came a new era of natural history and a geological period – the Anthropocene – in which we as a species capable of understanding the workings of entropy and thermodynamics have become the trend setters for global chemistry. We have been able to harness the power of natural resources and have become the creators of new materials via planned assembly of atoms and molecules into innovative combinations.

Plastics are a prime example of this creativity as they are synthetic versions of their natural analogues such as cellulose and silk, made up of molecules with wonderful properties such as strength, longevity and durability. But these useful characteristics are a double-edged sword. The longevity and durability of plastics is desirable when creating a kayak, house insulation or weather-resistant window frames, but becomes a problem when not looked after and thrown away into our environment. The accumulation of this wonder material in our fields, forests and seas is all too visible, and is reasonably causing concern.  So what is the solution?

The answer is not a simple binary decision of all-in or all-out. After all, plastics bring us genuine value in many areas. For example, their use in car manufacturing means automobiles are much lighter and hence more fuel-efficient than ever before.  This translates to lower emissions for internal combustion engine cars, and paves the way for future electric cars. Plastic packaging enhances food preservation and prolongs its shelf-life, significantly reducing food waste.  Plastics also play a crucial role in modern medicine and hospital hygiene, and have revolutionised blood and medicine storage and transportation. 

Such clear benefits do not mean that we can ignore the growing concerns with plastic waste.  It is possible to balance the pros and cons of plastic use and reap the benefits of our era-defining material whilst protecting our environment.  We need good ideas, effective implementation, and calm, balanced communication with a focus on solutions. And some ideas are already out there. Let’s take a closer look at these and break them down.

Replacement

-        Particularly relevant for “single-use” application (primarily packaging).   

-        Must beware of quick measures applied without careful consideration. 

-        Traditional materials, such as paper or glass, require a significantly higher amount of energy for manufacturing and generate much more CO2 than plastics

-        Glass container transportation is more energy-intensive and polluting than plastic container transportation

-        All materials are not interchangeable - some materials are simply far more suited for certain tasks

-        A proper understanding of all possible alternatives, including the impact that specific materials make over their entire life-cycles (from production to disintegration), is necessary to make wise judgements 

Recycling:

-        Putting waste into the correct colour bin does not equate to actual recycling

-        Much of our “recycled” waste  ends up in landfills or sent to other parts of the world

-        Innovative and true recycling pathways, along with modernised recycling infrastructure show great promise, but require:

a)     Transparent, straightforward communication between producers and consumers

b)     Sufficient waste management infrastructure

c)      Responsibility at every level of the supply chain

Incineration:

-        Contaminated plastic waste, unsuitable for recycling is best suited for incineration

-        Plastics are huge molecules of carbon and hydrogen- their combustion releases large quantities of useful energy (to generate electricity)

-        Today’s incinerators follow strict emission testing standards and utilise state-of-the-art filters and chemical ‘scrubbers’ that remove any possible toxins

-        Energy content per volume of plastics is superior to that of coal, therefore plastic waste is a potentially reliable source of electricity

-        Better value utilization than leaving such energy-rich molecules in landfills

Circular economy:

-        Circular economy seeks to significantly extend product and material lifecycles

-        Seeks to redefine the way we view waste and maximize product value

-        Focus is on innovative design, quality materials and system-wide collaboration

-        Full implementation of these ideas will see changes in principle ideas of ownership and responsibility

 

We at Unipetrol have been keen to understand and delineate activities in this area in the Czech Republic and surrounding region.  Part of this effort is documented in the series of films “Michael’s Reactions” and “Let’s Talk about It”, available on YouTube. 

The success of human beings lies in our capacity to innovate when change requires it.  Our challenge is to identify the true value of materials and create the systems necessary to utilize that value throughout their life-cycle.  To treat our creations as treasure and not trash.