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Not so fantastic? Charting the rise and rise of life with synthetic plastic

The contemporary world is unimaginable without plastic products, but the long-term consequences of living with artificial polymers are still to be fully understood.

5 October 2021

When Leo Baekeland invented the first fully-artificial polymer in 1907, he probably did not imagine that the 20th century was to be the century of plastic. Bakelite was surprisingly durable, heat resistant, a good electric insulator, and easily mass-produced. In the following decades other plastics, such as nylon and plexiglass, were invented and started replacing traditional materials. The real power of plastics was seen during WWII, when production in the US increased threefold to supply the army with a variety of products at unprecedented pace.[1] During the booming 1950s, plastic entered everyday life and was seen as the design material of the future, thanks to its infinite colours and shapes. Formica kitchens were marketed as the dream of American housewives,[2] while designer Arne Jacobsen created the Egg Chair for the prestigious Royal Hotel in Copenhagen. And no discussion of plastic can be had without acknowledging the revolutionary impact that plastic has had on the medical industry[3].

By the end of the 60’s, plastic had already begun to lose its futuristic appeal. Six decades later, plastic is now perceived mostly as a cheap and polluting material.[4] Plenty of businesses have been developing and marketing products on the basis of being plastic-free. But living entirely without plastic products is, for most of us, practically impossible without dedicating significant time and effort to it.[5] Nonetheless, it is now abundantly clear that the current patterns of plastic production, consumption and disposal are unsustainable and highly damaging not only to the environment, but also to our own bodies.[6]

‘Plastic’ is an umbrella term used indicate polymers, i.e. materials made of long chains of molecules. Any polymer is technically a plastic, for example cellulose. Bioplastic, namely plastic produced from plants, is a very promising technology. However, the vast majority of plastic materials are made from fossil hydrocarbons, the same resources used to produce fossil fuels. Researchers have estimated that 8.3 billion metric tons (Mt) of such plastics have been produced globally to date, of which 6.3 billion Mt have ended their useful life and thus become waste. Only 9% and 12% of this waste was recycled and incinerated, respectively, while the rest was disposed into landfills or directly into natural environments.[7]

Our economies are ‘leaking’ plastic everywhere, so much that the presence of artificial polymers in geological strata can be used as indicator of the current era, the so-called Anthropocene

Left in landfills or natural environments, hydrocarbon-based plastics do not biodegrade, but slowly break down into smaller parts and enter the ecosystem. Currently the only way to get rid of hydrocarbon-based plastic is to burn it, which can be highly polluting if not conducted in a controlled way. Plastic pyrolysis, a particular type of combustion, has the potential to become a more sustainable and financially-viable disposal option with valuable by-products.[8] So far, the more sustainable option is recycling, but doing so ‘downcycles’ the material, meaning that it progressively loses usability and economic value. In truth, recycling only delays the inevitable disposal through incineration or landfill. Current global recycling rates for plastic are estimated to be below 20%, much lower than those of other materials such as paper or steel.[9]

Essentially, our economies are ‘leaking’ plastic everywhere, so much that the presence of artificial polymers in geological strata can be used as indicator of the current era, the so-called Anthropocene.[10] The accumulation of plastic waste in oceans is particularly alarming. The IUCN considers plastic pollution as the most widespread issue for marine environments, as at least 8 million Mt of waste enter the oceans annually and makes up 80% of all marine debris.[11] Plastic bags, bottles, containers and wrappers make up almost half of this waste.[12] This takes dramatic proportions in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the world’s largest accumulation of marine debris. It measures roughly twice the size of France and is located between Japan and the Hawaii.[13] Marine wildlife is the first to be impacted by plastic waste, as animals ingest it or become trapped in it. As micro- and nano-plastic particles enter the food chain, they eventually end up everywhere. Traces have been found in tap water, beer, salt[14] and, unsurprisingly, human faeces.[15]

Regions of plastic waste in the oceans are so large that they have created their own ecosystems, the ‘plastisphere’. In these synthetic environments, species are adapting and thriving. Invasive species take advantage of floating debris to travel across the oceans.[16] Bacteria such as Ideonella sakaiensis have been discovered which are capable of ‘eating’ plastic.[17] This is somewhat a positive development, as we might be able to use such bacteria to reduce plastic waste. But scientists are also concerned about the capacity of the plastisphere to offer good breeding grounds for pathogenic bacteria,[18] such as the cholera causing Vibrio cholerae.

At least 8 million Mt of waste enter the oceans annually and make up 80% of all marine debris.[24] Plastic bags, bottles, containers and wrappers make up almost half of this waste

Overall, we really don’t know the long-term consequences of altering natural ecosystems at such large scales. As global rates of plastic emissions show no signs of decline, they may trigger unforeseen and irreversible effects, such as changes to carbon and nutrient cycles.[19] While there are international efforts to prevent marine pollution (such as the 1972 London Convention), these seems to have had little impact. As a consequence, direct efforts to remove existing plastic waste from water bodies have been established, most notably the Ocean Clean Up initiative.[20] But it is estimated that around 30 million Mt of plastic waste currently enters aquatic ecosystems annually, and this may reach over 50 million Mt by 2030. In order to reduce plastic emissions to an ‘acceptable’ level - below 8 million Mt per year - an enormous effort is required. Global plastic production should decrease by 25-40% while global rates of plastic waste collection and management should increase to 60%, and 40% of the remaining annual plastic emissions should be removed through clean-up initiatives.[21]

While there may be economic opportunities in the fight against plastic pollution, there will inevitably be push back as well. At societal level, single-use plastic products are ingrained in our patterns of consumption, to the extent that even relatively small-scale changes are still met with opposition from some.[22] Experience tell us that societal inertia and vested interests can, as in the case of climate change, easily obstruct efforts to create necessary change. By slowly increasing the amount of plastic particles in our ecosystems, we are conducting a risky experiment.  

Somewhat surprisingly, some solutions to this problem may lie in the past. To take consumer packaging and products as an example: a return to glass, ceramic, tin and wooden storage – those materials used before the invention of plastics – could help. But this also requires a change in business thinking around packaging[23]. Packaging must move from being a cost to an asset, with the potential to be collected after use and cleaned. Such a change is by no means a small feat. But without further action, we risk altering every ecosystem on the planet.


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    [3] Can medical care exist without plastic? | National Geographic