The world is slowly and gradually waking up to plastic pollution but has a long way to go before plastic recycling is the new revolution. Needless to say, plastic pollution is one of the most pressing issues of today’s times. Since the production of single-use plastic is rapidly increasing it is now overwhelming for the environment to deal with it. No one knows exactly how long it takes for plastic to break down but experts estimate it to be hundreds or thousands of years. Developing nations are more faced with plastic pollution due to the lack of or inefficient garbage collection and disposal systems. Low recycling rates and the rise of single-use plastics have also added to this spiral. Thus, plastic recycling becomes extremely crucial.
What is Plastic after all?
Plastic is made up of polymers, long repeating chains of molecule groups. In nature, polymers exist everywhere like in the walls of cells, DNA, hair, etc. But it is also possible to create them by breaking down crude oil into its components and rearranging them, we can create synthetic polymers.
Plastics can be broadly divided into two distinct categories according to their chemical composition. One category is plastics that are made up of polymers having only linear atoms in their backbone chains. The other category is made up of heterochain polymers. These compounds in addition to carbon contain atoms such as sulphur, oxygen and nitrogen in their backbone chains. Bakelite is used for mechanical parts, PVC for plumbing, Acrylic as a shatter-resistant alternative to glass and Nylon for clothing fabric and war equipment.
Plastic has extraordinary traits. It is lightweight, durable and can be moulded into any shape. Since, it can be easily mass-produced and are available in huge amounts, incredibly cheaply so, the golden era of plastics began. Today, almost everything is partly made up of plastic – our electronic equipment, household appliances, furniture, clothes, bicycles, cars, etc.
Why is Plastic the Devil?
To understand how plastic is wreaking havoc on our environment let’s take a read below-
Every year, about 8 million tons of plastic waste is disposed into the oceans. Half of all the plastics which exists today on our planet have been manufactured in the last 15 years. Production volume of plastic worldwide from the year 1950 to 2018 is calculated around 359 million metric tons. Production is expected to double by 2050. This clearly screams how plastic recycling is the need of the hour.
Plastic in Land & Sea
Plastic waste is omnipresent, from the Arctic to Antarctica. It clogs our drainage system, fills our grounds and parks, and is even piling up on Mount Everest. Primarily, because of us directly dumping our trash into the nearest river or lake, plastic is growing increasingly common in the world’s oceans too. Majority of plastic debris winds up at landfills and will continue to remain there for an indefinite period of time. It pollutes the soil and has everlasting harmful effects on the environment as well. Land animals like elephants, zebras, tigers, cattle, and other large mammals, consume plastic waste which results in digestive tract dysfunctions, pierced organs, liver and cell damage causing death. Plastic recycling could help save wildlife too.
Plastic waste is a major cause of life-threatening destruction to marine life as well. It has become a common phenomenon for sea creatures to lose their life either by eating or entangling in plastic debris. An estimated 270,000 tons of plastic is floating through the world’s seas where it continues to threaten the marine life. Whales, sharks, turtles and many more sea-creatures are the unfortunate victims of plastic havoc in the sea. They often get entangled in fishing nets, ropes and lose their lives. Large pieces of the plastic fragment into smaller pieces over time and animals end up consuming them which ultimately leads to digestive issues like intestinal blockage, slow poisoning resulting in killing these animals. Only if plastic recycling systems are in place, it could save this precious marine-life.
Microplastics are adding insult to the injury, as large plastic debris breaks down further into smaller and smaller fragments. Sunlight, tidal force and wind break down plastic debris into tiny particles making it even easier to penetrate each and every inch of the oceans.
Plastic has also successfully invaded our dinner tables as research says microplastics are present in many aquatic species like shrimps, fish and mussels.
Why Plastic Recycling?
Plastic recycling would play a major role in shaping the future of this planet however, it poses a challenge as not all plastic is recyclable and not all recyclable plastic is recycled. Often, we are confused by the term “break-down” versus bio-degradable. Only a tiny percentage of plastic is bio-degradable. More often than not, plastic broken down into smaller fragments still remain non-biodegradable and hazardous for the planet.
Plastic has led to many conveniences in our day-to-day lives however, it has encouraged a disposable culture where single-use plastic dominates our markets and lives. From packaging to plastic bags, plastic will persist in the environment forever. This is the reason why probably plastic will outlast humans. Plastic has immortality and this is why now more than ever we need to create an eco-system of recycling plastic.
How can we benefit?
Plastic recycling is the process of recovering waste or scrap plastic and reprocessing the materials into functional and useful products. Plastic recycling will reduce high volumes of plastic pollution while ensuring there is less pressure on virgin resources to produce brand new plastic products. This can be one way to conserve resources and reduce plastic waste from our landfills and oceans. As plastic continues to grow in volume, experts suggest that the focus should be placed on reusability of plastic rather than treating it as disposable material. This will encourage the production of recyclable plastic which will reduce more production of plastic and in turn result in recycling the existing plastic in this planet. Both industries and society need to regard items with immortality. Increasing production of bio-degradable plastic is also another option. Technological advancements have ensured that plastic recycling process is easy and cost-effective.
How are Industry Giants helping?
Lego, best known for manufacturing toy building bricks is heading towards a sustainable future. The brand has invested $155 million to make a new Sustainable Materials Centre. Around 100 employees were put on the task to make use of fully sustainable resources to build its product by 2030. Lego has now pledged to make toys made from sugarcane-based polyethene rather than petroleum-based plastic.
Another example could be that of McDonald’s, with its global presence in almost all the countries on the map, it has ensured that all its packaging products come from recycled or renewable sources. Plastic recycling is backed by big businesses too; now it can only be left to time to witness this practice across industries.
Costa Coffee has also stepped up its efforts in combating plastic pollution. By 2020, the company plans to shift completely to reusable cups. Also, the company has applied a ban on all plastics cups and straws across its cafes.
For decades, plastic has been one of the main products of fracking. Fracking pollutes air, water, soil with toxins. The reason why sinkholes have become a common appearance now is fracking. This happens mainly due to excessive availability of single-use plastic. Disposable plastic is everywhere and has penetrated deep into the layers of soil. This disrupts the rock formation and creates immense amounts of pressure underground leading to many natural calamities like earthquakes.
Industry and businesses are now in a paradigm shift as more and more companies are rising towards sustainable products. From clothing, kitchen utensils, furniture, home décor and accessories, etc. markets are now flooded with plastic-free and recycled products. Plastic recycling has also brought in the concept of upcycled products. The only way forward to conserve resources and preserve this blue planet is to go down the sustainable path. Plastic recycling, products made of renewable resources, and a minimal living will help sustain a healthy eco-system. Small steps like boycotting products with microbeads, buying second hand, plastic recycling, reducing single-use plastic can go a long way in combating plastic pollution. Plastic recycling is crucial for end-of-life plastic pollution control. Spreading public awareness, investing in research and development can result in effective plastic recycling facilities. Mother nature too has her own way of giving back to life on earth in her own unique way. For example, researchers have found that some caterpillars have a type of gut microbes that can biodegrade some types of non-bio-degradable plastic. Advanced research and innovation can inspire think tanks/ experts to develop a truly ubiquitous and long-lasting system to help plastic recycling become the new normal. There can be an optimistic view with regards to plastic pollution if we create efficient waste management systems, sustainable product designs and plastic recycling facilities. We can make a difference through tweaking/changing our habits but the larger pressure definitely lies on industries and businesses to ultimately manufacture smart yet sustainable products to reduce the carbon footprint while enjoying a successful business.