Future of Plastics. Human choking on plastic bag. Can we ever get rid of plastics?

Can we ever get rid of Plastic?

Is a plastic-free world possible? Find out as we discuss the future of plastics in our lives and on this planet.

By Ashwathi Rajiv

When trying to adopt a sustainable and conscious lifestyle, the first thing to check off that list is single-use plastic or just plain plastic. But it’s a little more complicated than you think.

This article will look at how plastic has inserted its way into our daily lives and if we can ever get rid of it and adopt a lifestyle without plastic. In the following points, we will unfold why plastic is so difficult to eliminate from our lives and if we can even do it.

What is Plastic?

Plastic on a molecular level is an organic polymer with long carbon chains that act as the foundation that creates polymerisation. It can be natural or synthetic, depending on the mechanical properties. The tightness of these bonds is what makes them decomposing sooner or later. 

The carbon chains of plastic are too long and too well packed for microorganisms to digest. Smaller pieces will help them break and digest it sooner. The breakdown process of plastics is very long. Meanwhile, more virgin plastic enters the system and eventually ends up in landfills. Thus, we are left with a lot of plastic in our environment.

Why is Plastic so Reliable?

It is not news that plastic has become a vital part of our lives. When practising our conscious choices, we may often forget why plastic became so dependable in the first place. It has replaced many kinds of raw materials and plays a vital role in making cars, computers, and other manufactured goods. Its functionality or economic value cannot be easily replaced.

Plastic has taken over from glass, paper and cardboard in packaging. If you look around where you are right now, you can easily spot 2-3 plastic products and many more items that may have come in plastic packaging. That’s the abundance of plastic right in from of your eyes. Given below are just some of the reasons plastic has proved itself reliable to us:

  • Low cost 
  • Low density 
  • Fabrication capabilities (manufacturing)
  • Flexibility 
  • Strength (long-lasting)
  • Lightweight

Plastic’s importance during covid 

Plastic already plays a significant role in the healthcare industry. From single-use syringes to IV sets, glucose bottles, plastic aprons, catheters and cannulas- several medical essentials items have plastic components.

With the healthcare industry overloaded due to the pandemic, plastic manufacturing also has gone up. Let’s not forget how effective plastic has proven to be in these unprecedented times. Plastic masks, shields and PPE kits became essential precautionary items used by all. COVID-19 pandemic has reemphasized the indispensable role of plastics in our daily life.

Plastic packaging provided a longer shelf-life for food items and other safety items, along with packages used to deliver things worldwide. Plastic thus became an easy and effective choice.

Plastics, on the other hand, have been labelled as evil polluters due to their indiscriminate littering and mishandling during this unparalleled crisis, which has resulted in increased plastic usage and waste accumulation. Many studies have stated that the Covid-19 pandemic has halted, and even reversed, much of our progress against plastic pollution.

The Plastic Disposal Problem

There’s no problem with plastic being a reliable material for usage. The problem arises in the sophistication of its waste management.

Only 10% of plastic ends up being recycled or used in a manner that does not harm the environment. Only 10% out of the entire plastic that is produced. The world produces 381 million tonnes of plastic waste yearly. So plastic waste management barely makes a dent in the issue at hand. 

The same properties that make plastic so valuable are the ones that make its disposal problematic. This is mainly because recycling or disposal is an afterthought. Manufacturing plastic is cheap, and the material is durable. So no one puts an extra bit of thought to put a better disposal plan in place.

Currently, Asia is the top polluter contributing to plastic waste due to the lack of proper waste management systems and disposal techniques in place. A study conducted by researchers at Science Advances titled ‘Production, use, and the fate of all plastics ever made‘ explores the journey of plastics so far. Here are some key findings:

  • The researchers estimate that 8300 million metric tons of virgin plastics have been produced to date.
  • As of 2015, approximately 6300 million metric tons of plastic waste had been generated, around 9% of which had been recycled, 12% was incinerated, and 79% was accumulated in landfills or the natural environment.
  • If current production and waste management trends continue, roughly 12,000 million metric tons of plastic waste will be in landfills or in the natural environment by 2050.

These numbers clearly highlight the need to find a solution to the plastic waste problem and setup equally compelling answers to what happens after we have used a plastic product.

The Future of Plastics: Where do we go from here?

The question is not if we can ever get rid of plastic. While realising the enormity of this undertaking, we must know that it is unrealistic to expect so. But we definitely do not want to leave you hopeless.

Kenya is emerging as a leader in the fight against plastic pollution and France plans to eliminate all single-use plastic by 2040. Akinori Ito from Japan is turning plastic waste into fuel. Several innovations around the globe and across different industry verticals are taking place to manage the plastic waste pandemic. India is also taking steps to become free of single-use plastic by 2022.

Plastic waste management needs to be a forefront concept and not an afterthought. Virgin plastic is exceptionally cheap. It costs ten times the cost to use glass or other materials to make packaging. However, we need to start evaluating the environmental costs and damages involved in producing more plastic without managing the existing waste. To make waste management with the existing plastic better, policy changes need to be made. That will help to allocate money on alternative options. 

The global pandemic prompted a tremendous upheaval in the way we work and live, the consequences of which we are still learning about. As inhabitants of the planet, though, we must learn to pivot quickly. Of course, the human race’s health is of paramount importance. The health of the earth we live on, on the other hand, should be a priority as well.

We must keep working to reduce the use of virgin plastic, maximize plastic recycling, and coordinate efforts to implement circular economy strategies. Exploring innovative and eco-friendly solutions like bioplastic is essential. As individuals, we have great power in controlling the future of plastics on this planet. So keep using those tote bags and containers when you go to the store and continue making the right choices!

Ashwathi is a freelance writer and is new to conscious living. Her most prominent badge of honour is that she hasn’t shopped in two years. Check out her journey towards sustainability and how she makes the best out of what she already has on her Instagram page.


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