In the latest blog article we’ve had a look at how plastic has evolved from pioneering discovery to War Material, then pushed into commercial applications and becoming a worldwide environmental threat by creating a single-use culture.
Currently the Plastic industry counts an yearly production that varies between 350 and 400 Million tons divided within two major categories of material.
a family of plastics that can be melted when heated and hardened when cooled. These characteristics, which lend the material its name, are reversible for multiple cycles. This group counts 20+ different types of materials including the most common PP, PET, PVC etc..
a family of plastics that undergo a chemical change when heated, creating a three-dimensional network. After they are heated and formed these plastics cannot be re-melted and reformed. These group counts about 10+ different types of materials including the most common Polyurethane and the resins.
Thermoplastics dominate the market with about 90% of the total production and the most widely used ones are:
with another 13% that comes in the form of PP and PET fibers for the textile industry. In general plastics are classified into 7 categories according to Resin Identification Codes (RIC) that lists them based on the recycling value (or the recyclability the material) .
While, the fields of application of these materials are:
30% - includes everything from bottles to bubble wraps
17% - includes pipes, insulation, floorings, doors, windows etc..
12% - vehicles parts, railways components, airplanes etc…
10% - that covers a large variety of sectors from toys to medical products, garden tools etc.
4% - include laptop, wires, appliances etc..
As we have seen in our latest blog post, one of the biggest issue with plastic is the wave of waste that is generated in the form of littering (dispersed in the environment) or that end up in landfill or incineration. The main source of plastic waste, classified as macroplastic, is municipal solid waste which includes the fractions: packaging, consumer & institutional products, electrical/electronics, and textiles. In total, this amounts to about 161 million tonnes of plastic waste, with the packaging being a majority of the total. Today, 95% of plastic packaging material value or USD 80–120 billion annually is lost to the economy after short first use. Furthermore, an overwhelming 72% of plastic packaging is not recovered at all: 40% is landfilled, and 32% leaks out of the collection system — that either it is not collected at all, or it is collected but then illegally dumped or mismanaged (EMF - New plastic economy).
Wastewater, instead, is a carrier of microfibers and microplastics, from sources such as textiles and cosmetics, that represent the second largest source of plastic pollution in our oceans - up to 30% of all ocean plastic.
There are certainly ways to improve these numbers. On one hand, an industry-wide effort would be needed, starting with the adoption, or imposition, of design standards, following with the phasing out of toxic additives and the development of sorting technologies to detect and separate effectively these materials to be sent to recycling. On the other hand, a cultural change, both at consumer and industrial level, would be required to avoid 2 of the biggest problems that are littering and single-use products.
Moreover, we should consider that even if perfection is achieved at the collection and sorting level, limits to recycling would come from the material itself. In fact, not all the plastics commercially available can be recycled, take for example group 7, and even when recyclable, almost all plastics after a few cycles will start to degrade in quality of polymers and lose their value. Which make single-use, or all short life, products highly ineffective as materials since they would likely cease to be useful in less than 1 year.
Since plastic plays an important in today’s society, it will be really hard to completely replace it. Therefore, while we phase plastic out and replace it with better materials, it would be really important to solve the problems that we have created at different levels.
When it comes to replacing plastic, especially for single-use applications, one direction that is being followed is that of bio-based plastics. These types of materials are of natural derivation and, if properly designed and produced, can be turned at the end of life into biological feedstock. The problem with this material is that current technologies only allow the production of food-derived bio-plastics (from corn, sugar etc..) that compete with food production and support unsustainable farming practices. A much better solution would be if we could turn food waste into bioplastics, thus creating an effective loop of biomaterial utilization.Discover our Ecopedia
Another solution to mitigate the current plastic issue is paying attention to the packaging of products. You will notice that some packaging follow specific standards and certifications that regulate the materials that can be used, avoiding toxic ones, make it easier for the consumer to dispose of the packaging and also standardize collection, sorting and recycling. Thus extending the lifetime of a material. (EU Ecolabel and C2C provide interesting guidelines for packaging)
With the growth of awareness on a global scale of the plastic issue a growing number of individuals, startups, NGOs and alternative corporations started searching for innovative solutions to the problem.
A note of mention is definitely deserved by what has been done by Boyan Slat, young inventor, who at the age of 16 years came up with the idea of developing a passive system, using the circulating ocean current to clean floating plastic in the sadly well known “garbage patch”. He founded the Ocean Clean Up in 2013, and after 7 years of R&D he launched System 001/B in 2019, that is successfully capturing and collecting floating plastic debris.
Another project that is substantially helping our planet by collecting waste plastic from landfill and the ocean is 4Ocean. This no-profit project has been capable to create a value-driven community of volunteers with the common goal of cleaning beaches and seas, becoming probably the greatest community of beach cleaners worldwide that counts since 2017 more than 4.3 tons of plastic recovered.
Seabin founders designed a floating bin capable to collect trash in the harbours and piers. The organization is made by a community of activists and scientific researchers who do not only react to existing waste by cleaning seas but also people who offer educational programs to create knowledge. Seabin mission is “to live in a world without the need for Seabins”. They stimulate communities and industry leaders to see plastic waste not only as with a passive perspective but as real influencers, by reducing consumption therefore the production of single-use wraps and items that are not primarily essential.
Also as individuals, we have the power to drastically impact on the eradication of this Plastic Problem. The first step would be to slowly replace, whenever we can, single-use plastic products with reusable alternatives (have a look at our IG series of plastic free alternatives). Then, when we can’t really do without, we should pay attention to avoid products packaged with mixed materials (i.e. plastic and paper) or non-recyclable ones. As of today, plastic grouped under the RIC code 7 cannot be recycled. However, it includes also biodegradable and compostable plastics that could still be turned into useful feedstock and thus need to be collected separately. Then, when it comes to disposal, we should absolutely avoid ditching plastic (and in general every kind of waste) in the environment and always properly dispose of it in the recycling bin, if recyclable of course.
If good behaviour is not enough, you could actively contribute to the cause by: