The Role of Plastic in our World {EarthTalk Q&A}

EarthTalk®
From the Editors of E – The Environmental Magazine

earthtalk environmental footprint

 

Dear EarthTalk: Considering all the well-publicized problems with plastic in our oceans, do you think that plastic has any kind of future? — Lea Mauduit, via EarthTalk.org

Is plastic here to stay? #plastic #pollution #garbage

As much as environmentalists shudder at the proposition, it looks like plastics are here to stay. Most experts agree that there’s no way to get humans to stop using plastic even if it would benefit the environment. This modern petrochemical-derived material is inexpensive to make, easy to form into various shapes and sizes, and is tough and strong enough to be used in a wide range of applications. We all make use of it in various forms hundreds of times a day just going about our business.

 

Plastic Production on the Rise

“Plastics are the workhorse material of the modern economy,” reports the consulting firm McKinsey & Co., adding that global production has surged from 15 million to 311 million metric tons yearly between 1964 and 2014. That number is projected to double to over 600 million metric tons in the next 20 years.

But the functional benefits of plastic come at a steep price, mostly as non-recyclable waste. Single-use plastics represent a quarter of the total volume of plastics produced and around 95 percent of the value of plastic-packaging material. McKinsey estimates that the single-use plastics industry is worth some $80-$210 billion annually. Plastic’s useful life is often less than a year, yet the material lives on for centuries.

Sadly, only 14 percent of plastic, single-use or otherwise, is recycled, even though much more of it could live another life if recycling processors were equipped and willing to handle it. Europeans manage to re-use a third of their plastic waste; the U.S. has only been able to re-use 10 percent. 

 

Alternatives to Plastic?

Some are looking to so-called “bio-plastics” made from plant wastes instead of petroleum as one solution, but experts worry that even these nouveau greener formulations still won’t break down and go away, especially out at sea. “A lot of plastics labelled biodegradable, like shopping bags, will only break down in temperatures of 50°C and that is not the ocean,” says Jacqueline McGlade of the UN Environment Programme. “They are also not buoyant, so they’re going to sink, so they’re not going to be exposed to UV and break down.” 

According to McKinsey, we need to start applying “circular-economy” principles to global plastic-packaging if we want to stem the tide of plastic waste. To get this ball rolling, UK-based sailor Ellen MacArthur, who set the world record in 2005 for fastest solo circumnavigation of the globe, is using her personal foundation to fund the Circular Design Challenge to inspire creative solutions in reducing plastic packaging. Ten early-stage ideas will each receive $10,000 in funding to help get their concepts into production, while bigger operations with more established solutions already in the works can apply for one of three $100,000 awards to further prototyping and production goals. While this funding may represent a drop in the bucket of the kind of resources we’ll need to beat the problem of plastic waste, it sets the wheels in motion to thinking sustainably about the future of plastics and the long term health of our environment.

 

CONTACTS: McKinsey & Company; UN Environment Programme; Ellen MacArthur Foundation; Circular Design Challenge.

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Learn More 

Don’t let this get you down – or stop trying to cut down on plastic. To learn about the countless options you have, read these zero-waste posts:

5 Weeks to Setting Up a Zero Waste Kitchen

5 Rules for Zero Waste Grocery Shopping

Why Minimalism is Great for the Environment

Cleaning Up Plastic in the Ocean {EarthTalk Q&A}

 

Say no to plastic! Check out these starter Zero Waste kits from Etsy (affiliate links) – and start cutting down your dependence on plastic:

zero waste starter kit

 

zero waste starter kit with grocery bag, bamboo toothbrush and steel straws

 

THIS POST MAY CONTAIN AFFILIATE LINKS. PLEASE READ MY DISCLOSURE FOR MORE DETAILS.

 

As much as environmentalists shudder at the proposition, it looks like plastics are here to stay. Most experts agree that there’s no way to get humans to stop using plastic even if it would benefit the environment. #plastic #pollution #environment

THIS POST MAY CONTAIN AFFILIATE LINKS. PLEASE READ MY DISCLOSURE FOR MORE DETAILS.

What do you think?