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Plastic… the double-edged sword

Plastic… the double-edged sword

Global concerns are increasing day by day with the climate change and its related issues, which have resulted in a significant interest in sustainable development concepts in all aspects of life as a promising solution to face the crises the world is going through, not only the climate crisis.

The featured article of this issue discusses one of the most controversial topics, “plastic”, in an attempt to give a complete picture of this industry’s nature and the vital role it plays in our daily lives, while highlighting the negative aspects and their impact and the most prominent solutions available to deal with them, while also discussing the main opportunities and challenges for this industry from a broader perspective.

How plastic revolutionized our world?

No one denies this fact: “Plastic is indispensable in our modern lives”, we find it all around us, whether your eyes can see it or not. Since its discovery in the mid-nineteenth century, plastic has proven day by day to be the perfect material for many uses. Plastic is considered a relatively cheap material, as a result, it is used on a large scale as an inexpensive alternative to wood, glass, and even some metals and other manufacturing materials.

It is no exaggeration to say that life without plastic in modern society is unimaginable. The reality is that plastic products are all around us and are an integral part of our lives. We eat with them, sleep on them, learn through them, save lives by them, and much more in our homes, offices, and communities.

On average, plastic makes up about 15% of the total weight of automotive manufacturing materials, a quarter of the weight of smartphone manufacturing materials, and half the weight of an airplane. In addition, plastic is one of the key elements for many value-added chains, including packaging, healthcare, construction, logistics, clothing, household items, furniture, modern plumbing and pipes, and most recently, recycling.

Plastic plays a vital role in driving industrial development, between creating jobs and developing new products, all in order to improve human life, but the more plastic we use, the greater the environmental and social burdens.

As a society, we spend a lot of time and resources on manufacturing virgin plastic and turning it into amazing products, with complete disregard and apparent disinterest in reusing or recycling, as we recycle only a small percentage of the total plastics we produce each year, while the huge amount remaining makes its way into oceans and landfills, causing damage to life under water while affecting the quality of life on land.

The Chemistry of Plastic

Plastic consists of “polymers“. A polymer is a chemical chain that consists of a group of continuously repeating molecules, each of which is called a “monomer”. The way these chains are connected to each other, and the type of the molecules forming each chain, control the type and properties of the material and determine its optimal use.

To simplify the matter, you can imagine a single polymer chain as a train. This train consists of many similar carriages connected to each other, consider each carriage as monomer. These carriages are strongly and rigidly connected to each other so that the train can operate, which is the same case between monomers, as they are strongly connected to each other to preserve the cohesion of the polymer and give it its distinctive characteristics.

Polymers can be divided into two main categories depending on the source, either natural polymers, which we find in nature without any human intervention to form them, such as wool, silk, cotton, natural rubber, as well as proteins, and many more, or man-made polymers “Synthetic polymers”, which are made by using chemical reactions, the most famous of which are nylon, polyester, Teflon, and of course different types of plastic such as PVC, polyethylene, etc.

Different monomers are extracted mainly from fossil fuel derivatives, through a set of chemical reactions. These molecules are then mixed under specific conditions in a process known as polymerization to produce various polymers, the most important of which is plastic.

Consequently, and due to the different nature of polymers and its chemical reactions compared to organic or inorganic compounds, a new branch of chemistry has emerged, namely “polymer chemistry”, which is concerned with the study of these complex substances, how to obtain new types of them with specific properties, and the study of those that already exist in nature.

Negative environmental aspects

Every minute, the equivalent of a truck of plastic waste is dumped into our oceans, so plastic pollution has become a serious global problem. To better illustrate the picture, nearly 7 billion tons of plastic produced between 1950-2017 (out of 9.2 billion tons) became plastic waste that ended up in landfills or water sources.

Plastic pollution can alter habitats and natural processes, reducing the resilience of ecosystems to climate change, and directly affecting millions of people’s livelihoods, food production capabilities, and social well-being.

We do not deny that plastic is really useful, and we use it every day in many applications, but the problem of plastic begins when it is no longer needed, as disposing plastic in large quantities has led to a number of exacerbating problems for our planet.

Plastic is found in many things that we use, from clothes to packaging materials to containers, etc. Making things out of plastic is common because there are many different types of it that can be produced in all shapes, colors, and sizes, but the problem with plastic is that most of it is not biodegradable.

Due to its complex chemical composition, which we touched on above, plastic can remain in the environment for hundreds of years without degrading, unlike other types of waste such as paper or food waste, as those types even when thrown into the environment decompose into simple compounds that microorganisms can feed on.

According to studies, it is estimated that there are more than five trillion pieces of plastic present in the world’s oceans, and it may take centuries for this waste to decompose. The big number is quite logical, since every year, 400 million tons of plastic are produced, 40% of which is single-use plastic.

Examples of single-use plastic are bags, beverage bottles, snack packaging, etc., which cause more than eight million tons of waste to be introduced into the world’s oceans each year while the remaining quantity escapes to landfills.

Another problem is that not all plastics can be recycled, either because of the way they are made or due to recycling cost of some types and technical difficulties. For example, some paper coffee cups contain a waterproof plastic lining, which makes it difficult to recycle. Some would suggest that it is not that big of a deal to consider the effect of coffee cups, but when we know that seven million paper coffee cups are thrown away on a daily basis, while recycled at a rate of one cup out of every 400, we will reach a conclusion that this is a very serious matter.

Recycling of PVC is another example, as it is considered an almost impossible process due to the emission of corrosive gases that lead to the wear of used equipment in addition to polluting the air and the work environment. All of the above has led many experts to say that by 2050, there will be more plastic -by weigh- in the ocean than fish!

In addition, negative aspects of plastic pollution include the damage it causes to all living organisms, whether in the sea or on land. Many of us have seen pictures and videos of sea turtles stuck in plastic. Birds, fish, and shellfish can’t distinguish small plastics from food, as a result, they consume them without being able to digest, leaving no place in their stomachs to eat actual food, leading to the death of 100,000 sea animals each year.

Many scientists and researchers consider marine plastic pollution to be a growing global environmental crisis with no signs of slowing down, the most prominent example being the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”.

On the human side, studies show that average adult ingests an estimated 883 microplastic particles each day, an amount that accumulates in body tissues. On the other hand, production of new plastic from fossil resources is another challenge for natural resources, as this industry is far from applying the principles of the circular economy or achieving the goals of sustainable development.

COVID-19 impact on Plastics Industry

Plastics have excellent mechanical properties, including strength, light weight, and durability, while also being inexpensive, making them the material of choice for most disposable medical instruments and equipment. The coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated the indispensable role of plastics in the healthcare and public health sectors.

As of August 23, 2021, about 212 million people worldwide have been infected with the virus, a number that has been increasing to this day, surpassing the 700 billion mark. The increasing number of patients and virus tests led to a significant increase in the amount of plastic medical waste.

In order to maintain the huge demand for personal protective equipment such as face masks, gloves, etc., many legislations related to limiting single-use plastic have been withdrawn or postponed. In addition, the lockdown, social distancing, and restrictions imposed on public gatherings have increased reliance on online shopping at an unprecedented rate, thus increasing the demand for packaging materials, which necessarily contain plastic.

The pandemic presented a conflicting package of impacts on the environment. On the one hand, global carbon dioxide emissions decreased by 6.4 percent, or 2.3 billion tons, as a direct result of declining economic and social activities, but on the other hand, the plastics industry witnessed an unprecedented demand for personal protective equipment, supported by lower oil prices – which make virgin plastic cheaper to produce – from which plastic manufacturers have clearly benefited financially.

For example, in its fourth-quarter report in January 2021, 3M, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of N95 face masks, reported that it sold 2 billion masks during 2020 and expanded its production capacity to 2.5 billion masks.

N95 masks are manufactured from synthetic plastic fibers, including polypropylene. These masks are widely used by healthcare workers as well as ordinary people, as it is estimated that billions of face masks are used each month, as well as gloves and other PPE that there is no system for collecting and disposing of properly.

Despite the potential effects of the above, the total amount of plastic waste associated with the pandemic and its environmental and health effects are largely unknown. However, using calculations and comparisons with annual amounts of plastic waste before the pandemic, it can be said that COVID-19 increased plastic pollution in the oceans by up to 2% on an annual basis.

Sustainability in plastics industry

Plastic

In recent years, interest has shifted to circular economy models with their reimagining in the plastics industry by developing better manufacturing methods and optimizing the use of products, away from the linear approach that the plastics industry currently follows, which only cares about production rates.

The application of the circular economy includes reducing the production of virgin plastics and reducing dependence on them in general; reusing and extending the shelf life of plastic products; recycling plastic waste as raw materials for new products; in addition to redesigning the plastic value chain, including the influence of consumer behavior.

Fortunately, consumers’ awareness regarding plastics has begun to increase in recent years, which has positively affected the manufacturing industry’s efforts to develop sustainable and more environmentally friendly products. Below, we dwell on the main 4 concepts for a sustainable plastics industry.

Reduce

Businesses and governments have increasingly recognized the critical need to reduce the amount of plastic on our planet. In many countries, policymakers have introduced legislation that restricts or even bans single-use plastic bags. In Egypt, the Ministry of Environment presented a strategy to reduce the use of this type of plastic bag.

On the other hand, many companies have taken steps to reduce the use of plastic by reducing its weight. For example, reducing the weight of plastic bottles made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) used in many applications. PET is a lightweight plastic commonly used in food and beverage packaging. This trend of cutting its weight will play a role in reducing the amount of plastic used in packaging containers by one third.

The benefits of reducing plastic use extend beyond removing pressure on landfills, to conserving natural resources, reducing reliance on fossil fuels, and thus reducing GHG emissions from the production process.

Reuse

Reuse is one of the solutions that can significantly reduce plastic waste by directing used and unwanted plastics to new uses. On an individual level, you can simply use the Internet to get inspiration from a large number of simple ideas for reusing empty plastic bottles, and many of us may already be doing it.

On the industrial level, there are some companies that have taken the lead in adopting revolutionary ideas for reusing plastic; for example, the American clothing company “Patagonia”, which launched a line to resell the company’s used fashion, thus applying one of the basic concepts of the circular economy.

According to the company, increasing the shelf life of its clothes by an additional 9 months had a role in reducing waste and related carbon emissions by 20–30%. The company also uses recycled soda bottles to make the polyester threads needed in its production processes.

Recycle

Recycling is a key component of a circular economy, where plastic waste can be collected and reprocessed to be used again or converted into a raw material for new products.

There are many different types of plastics in use today, and although we have been able to recycle some of these types, the vast majority present a set of challenges that prevent them from being recycled. Many leading companies and large research centers are investing heavily in developing the technology needed to expand the range of plastics that can be recycled.

The plastic recycling process includes a set of stages, where the plastic that is collected from homes and various institutions is sent to recycling facilities for physical separation processes, which separate the plastic from other waste and then sort it according to type.

The plastic then goes to reprocessing where it is washed, shredded and sorted more precisely, then melted and shaped into recycled plastic pellets. These pellets are sold to be shaped into new products.

Redesign

To achieve all of the above, companies that manufacture various plastic products must reconsider redesigning their products to allow the previous 3 concepts to flourish. Therefore, product design has a very important role to play in transforming this industry into a truly circular economy.

Certainly, companies will need to consider consumers feedback and involve them in product redesign processes, as this plays a role in reaching the ideal design for each package or plastic product, ensuring a longer shelf life and a new life cycle after the end of the original use.

Redesign includes thinking outside the box and using new materials to manufacture products with environmental considerations in the first place. Examples of redesign are many; perhaps the most prominent example —that we discussed in the previous issue— is “Notpla”, the winner of the “Earthshot” award for the year 2022 in the category of “waste free world”, which makes seagrass packaging materials that can decompose naturally in the environment.

Waste to energy

plastic

The idea of burning plastic waste (incineration) to generate energy makes sense; after all, plastic is made of hydrocarbons, just like fossil fuels (petroleum, natural gas, and coal). Not only that, plastic possesses more heating value than coal, but there are several obstacles to the massive expansion of waste incineration for power generation.

The idea behind “waste to energy” is that some advanced incinerators for plastic waste and other municipal waste can produce enough heat and steam to operate turbines and generate electricity for the local grid. The problem here is the release of toxic gases, which differ in composition based on the type of waste, in addition to the high cost of construction and operation of incineration facilities, not to mention the absence of a clear legislative framework that guarantees the appropriate burning of waste for energy production; however, this idea still remains an appropriate option in some cases.

Another method to convert waste plastics into fuel is “pyrolysis”, which is a process that involves exposing plastic waste to high temperatures in the absence of oxygen to break its long chains of polymers into simpler components.

Pyrolysis of plastic waste produces a large amount of oil that can be used as fuel in energy-intensive industries such as cement, in addition to quantities of solid carbon that can be processed to produce carbon black or activated carbon. So, pyrolysis of plastic waste is considered one of the more promising solutions, except for the fact that this technology still needs development to deal with large amounts of waste.

One of the advantages of the latter process is that it produces quantities of pyrogas that can be recovered and used to generate the energy needed in pyrolysis, thus eliminating the need to use different fuels to reach the required temperatures in the reactors.

What about bioplastics?

Bioplastic can be defined as biodegradable plastic made from renewable biological materials, which are usually plants, waste, or microorganisms, while relying on renewable energy sources instead of production by traditional methods using petroleum or natural gas derivatives.

In 2022, the bioplastics industry accounted for only 1% of the plastic production in the world, so it’s safe to say that bioplastics industry is still in its infancy. So far, there is no unified global system for distinguishing biodegradable plastic from ordinary plastic, which makes it difficult for consumers to judge whether they are buying environmentally friendly products or not.

Despite this, the growing awareness of the negative impact of plastic, in addition to the increase in government regulatory frameworks dealing with plastic waste, has led to more interest and investment in bioplastics, an industry that is expected to grow by more than 10% in the next few years. This growth will help in solving one of the worst environmental problems the world is facing, “plastic pollution”.

To produce bioplastics, polymers are extracted from biological sources to form various plastic products. These bio-sources can include plants like sugarcane, corn, and other edible plant sources that are called “first-generation” feedstock, but there is a problem here. The production of bioplastics from first-generation sources is controversial as it may threaten food security.

As for the “second generation” of feedstock, it includes agricultural, industrial, municipal, and other waste, as these sources are inedible, and therefore the production of bioplastics from them will not cause any problem related to food security.

The “third generation” of biological sources from which plastic can be produced include seaweed, cyanobacteria, and microalgae. The latter can be grown in wastewater, including in water treatment facilities, which means that their cultivation will not affect other land uses. Bioplastic polymers can also be made from reused or recycled bioplastics, making them part of the circular economy.

The importance of bioplastics lies in eliminating dependence on petroleum and natural gas in production, which would greatly reduce the carbon footprint of this important industry, but only if we produce bioplastics from second- or third-generation sources, as first-generation sources like corn or sugarcane would only lead to about a 25% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

Another aspect is shifting the production process to depend on carbon-free renewable energy, which will have a much greater impact than just switching from fossil polymers to biopolymers, as clean energy sources will reduce the carbon footprint of plastic by 62%.

Unlike fossil-fuel plastics, bioplastics can easily be a large part of the circular economy, as waste-derived bioplastics are considered carbon neutral and therefore a promising sustainable option.

Opportunities and challenges

The main issue facing the plastics industry is how to dispose of the massive amounts of plastic waste that have accumulated, and how to prevent further accumulations in the future. Much of this waste is single-use, products like bags and bottles, and over the decades, this waste turns into tiny particles of plastic (microplastics) that can harm wildlife and find their way into our food chains.

The problem of plastic waste has been exacerbated by the significant rise of online shopping, the growing popularity of bottled (mineral) water, and the increase in personal protection measures used to deal with COVID-19, such as face masks, gloves, etc.

To make the matters worse, the volume of generated plastic waste is estimated to double over the next twenty years, due to the lack of a clear strategy to deal with plastic at the end of its life.

At the same time, governments need to get more firm about phasing out single-use plastic, using a bundle of fines, taxes, and incentives to gradually turn the industry more sustainable. In 2019, for example, the European Union adopted legislation that requires countries to ban certain single-use plastics, and to ensure that plastic producers bear any cost of integrated plastic waste management.

Recycling currently offers the best solution to the problem of plastic waste, but the recycling industry has not and will not be able to keep up with the huge amounts of plastic being disposed of every day. Estimates vary widely, but it is safe to say that 250 million metric tons of plastic waste is generated each year and only about 14 percent of it is recycled.

Recycling faces another big problem, which is the contamination of plastic with other materials, as we saw earlier with paper coffee cups, which mainly consist of high-quality cellulose fibers that are firmly attached to an inner plastic layer (polyethylene) that is difficult to separate, which makes recycling of such products very complicated.

In addition, cross-border movements of waste have decreased dramatically, as in 2020, more than 180 countries agreed to strictly limit plastic waste exports from rich countries to developing countries under the framework of what is known as the “Basel Agreement”.

Investment in recycling facilities is a great opportunity that hasn’t reached its full potential in many countries, especially the developing ones, which hinders the recycling industry from keeping pace with the increasing rates of plastic waste.

Another major challenge facing the plastics industry is reducing its GHG emissions. If plastic production continues at its current pace by 2030, emissions from this sector could reach an average of 1.34 billion tons per year.

This high rate of emissions is due to the fact that more than 99 percent of virgin plastic is made from natural gas and crude oil, as it is considered more economical when compared to the recycling process.

Statistics indicate that the plastics industry consumes about 9 percent of global oil and 3 percent of natural gas, but by 2050 this percentage could rise to up to 20 percent of total oil consumption, while emissions could triple the current rate.

In this context, leaving the plastics industry on its current path inevitably portends a future catastrophe, posing an explicit threat to the goal of the Paris Agreement (limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels).

In conclusion, supporting the recycling industry is important and major element to deal with plastic problem, as studies indicate that some types of recycled plastics can emit 80% less emissions compared to fossil-fuel plastic.

Be a part of the solution

Complex solutions include improving regulations, ramping up recycling, and offering incentives to encourage less fossil-fuel plastic production. But experts say there are many things people can do every day to help tackle their plastic footprint, so if you’re looking to make a green contribution, follow these simple steps.

Avoid single-use plastics such as drinking straws, polystyrene plates (foam), and cutlery. Although these products make our lives easier, they seriously harm the environment.

We go to the supermarket at least once a week to fill our refrigerators. If we use reusable bags (cloth, string, or wicker) everywhere we go, the health of our planet will improve. Remember to take yours whenever you leave the house from now on.

Buy more food in bulk, as it will require less packing. Disposable containers have flooded supermarkets (polystyrene trays, PET bottles, tetra packs, plastic containers, etc.). However, there is an alternative: an increasing number of establishments are offering the option to buy in bulk.

If you have to buy a plastic bottle, be sure to reuse it after the end of its primary purpose instead of disposing it directly. Be creative in reusing your plastic waste, and YouTube will certainly help you in identifying many ideas. And if you have to get rid of your plastic containers for some reason, make sure it is disposed of in a safe and proper manner in order to facilitate recycling operations.

In addition, it is the responsibility of each of us to educate and raise awareness among our families, friends, and colleagues, so that they realize the importance of reducing plastic consumption and switching to multi-use alternatives while adopting sustainable consumer behaviors in order to achieve the goal of safe plastic use.

Finally, it is important to emphasize that plastic is not the only evil here; our behaviors also are. It is essential to have a better understanding of plastics while exerting the maximum effort to turn this industry green, to preserve the environment and its resources, and to truly become the Earth Guards.

Who is to blame?

The plastics industry sector is undoubtedly one of the most vital and active sectors in many countries around the world, certainly including Egypt, and it is also responsible for increasingly providing a large number of job opportunities, and thus securing a source of income for millions of families around the world, but on the other hand, the environmental risks resulting from plastic waste, in addition to the reliance on fossil fuel sources for the production of plastic, and the resulting emissions of greenhouse gases from this industry, also threaten the lives of millions of families around the world.

In my opinion, and as discussed in the featured article, plastic has led to an unprecedented civilizational revolution that has decisively shaped our modern lives. However, in recent years, plastic has been the scapegoat for many environmental crises instead of dealing with the problem in a more comprehensive and realistic manner.

Plastic is a wonderful material. With its combination of amazing properties, great durability, light weight, and a cheap price, it can be used in a variety of applications, and we as a society have become vitally dependent on it. Plastic keeps our food fresh, makes our cars lighter, and makes our homes warmer.

The foregoing is not to turn a blind eye to the problem of plastic pollution that threatens many environmental systems, but rather to warn that the problem does not lie only in the large quantities of plastic that we use, but rather a large part of it is due to how we, as humans, manage our plastics after using them.

It is estimated that 2 billion people do not have access to waste collection systems, and the waste of more than 3 billion people is either disposed of or burned unregulated. People benefit from plastic, but with no waste collection services and smart systems to manage it, plastic waste is often dumped randomly to find its way into our oceans.

Not surprisingly, studies show that developing countries, including China, are the main source of plastic pollution in the oceans, so from a global perspective, working with developing countries to develop appropriate and sustainable waste management is critical if we are to tackle the problem of plastic pollution.

Unfortunately, many developed countries have taken the easy option of exporting plastic waste for recycling to China and other developing countries, the same countries that lack adequate infrastructure to manage their plastic waste.

Designers, developers, and materials engineers have an important role to play in driving change and reimagining this vital industry in light of the full life cycle of the materials they use, in order to design recyclable products.

Governments need to support entrepreneurs with the right technical, financial, and marketing skills to make new materials from recycled plastic, eliminate plastic waste, and support innovative ideas for environmentally friendly alternative packaging products, with an agenda to completely phase out single-use plastic.

Finally, I will not forget to emphasis the role of each of us to carry the responsibility towards reducing plastic waste by controlling consumption, adopting the reuse, or at least the proper disposal of plastic waste, while relying on environmentally friendly alternatives whenever possible.

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