Plastic is a material of endless possibilities. It can carry groceries and capture images; it forms ski jackets, desk chairs, toothbrushes, and suitcases. All these diverse applications stem from the same fundamental building block—polymers, which are long chains of molecules. Whether a polymer becomes a sturdy suitcase or a thin layer of Saran wrap depends on the specific type of polymer, the added chemicals, and the production process.
This versatility is what makes plastic fascinating, versatile, and successful. However, this success has led to a significant plastic pollution crisis. Our heavy reliance on plastic has resulted in an amount on the planet that outweighs the combined mass of all land and sea animals. Microplastics have been discovered in human blood, breast milk, Antarctic snow, and rain. Of the thousands of chemicals added to plastics, about one-third remain poorly understood. The broad range of components in plastic— the diversity that makes it so useful— also makes it challenging to recycle, contributing to the current plastic pollution crisis.
The severity of the plastic problem prompted over 170 countries to convene last year to discuss the possibility of drafting a treaty similar to the Paris climate accords but specifically for plastic. Many experts argue that the focus of this treaty should be on reducing plastic production. However, the notion that we can simply stop needing plastic may be wishful thinking. Historically, plastic production has been increasing because it's affordable and provides functionalities we didn't have before. In fact, plastic production is projected to nearly triple by 2060.
One apparent solution is to substitute plastic with other materials that serve the same function. However, plastic performs numerous crucial functions that materials like cotton and rubber cannot replicate.
Bio-based plastics offer hope for addressing plastic's substantial contribution to climate change. Currently, over 99 percent of polymers are derived from petroleum sources. If polymers were produced from biological materials instead, it could not only reduce fossil fuel consumption but also be carbon-negative, removing CO2 from the atmosphere during growth. Bio-based polymers can also be biodegradable. However, for this approach to gain traction, the cost of bio-based polymers needs to decrease.
In general, redesigning plastic involves navigating trade-offs between cost, scalability, carbon emissions, toxicity, and more. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the plastic problem. The multitude of plastic types and functions, each with financial, environmental, or health trade-offs, makes finding a universal solution challenging.
An ideal plastic would fulfill the functions of many existing plastics. In the life cycle of this nearly perfect plastic, it should be reusable. Even bio-based polymers require land and water associated with industrial agriculture, necessitating a limitation on new plastic use. Once the product reaches the end of its usefulness, it should be mechanically recyclable—not just once but as many times as possible before degradation. When it becomes unrecyclable, there should be an alternative—either chemically recyclable or utilizing waste for energy production. Ultimately, the plastic should be compostable, ensuring it remains within a closed loop for as long as possible, reducing the need for new plastic production.
While scientific advancements continue to improve plastic and its economic viability, everyone can play a crucial role. Continue recycling plastic items and ensure proper sorting. Whenever possible, reuse plastic or opt for alternative materials. After all, a combination of solutions working together is necessary to address the plastic pollution crisis.
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