The World Is Addicted To Plastic
We are in 21st century where plastic is already embedded deep in our daily life. They are all around us, and we can’t live without them; in health, transportation, production, household, security, they are everywhere, and it is unimaginable replacing them with other substance. Like it or not plastics are here to stay.
One trillion of plastic bags are used in the world every year, with ‘service’ time just only 15 minutes in average. Studies say that plastic production is up from 2 million tons in 1950 to 380 million tons in 2015. In 2050 the figure will close to 34 Billion tons. People is getting more and more dependant and we are addicted to plastics.
Oceans Of Plastics
More and more campaigns of reducing plastics to save the environment and the earth are launched everywhere in the globe. From environmentalist NGOs, to the politically correct government-made initiatives in various scales to reduce, or even ban plastics. 150 years ago, plastics was invented as a light, strong, and yet cheap material. Not only they bring conveniences to our everyday life, it will be hard to believe that they actually have saved wildlife.
If plastic had never been invented, piano keys and billiard balls would still have been made by ivory now.
As time goes, more and more things made from metals, woods, and stones are replaced by plastics. It’s versatility is unmatched. So much conveniences are brought by plastics which is not provided by other materials. The demand of plastics are so high that the trace left is also immense. About 8 million tons of plastic pollutes the sea every year. This is the biggest negative side of plastics that everyone hates the most.
Metal rusts, organics decomposes, but plastic takes hundreds of years, if ever, to degraded back into it’s original element. Plastic waste in landfills will still be there for a long time.
A Superhero Or Supervillain ?
People shocked upon the news that several ‘ garbage patches ‘of epic proportion are formed in all the oceans. Plastic waste floating in the oceans are driven by sea current and accumulated in an area, the largest and most famous being ‘The Pacific Garbage Patch’.
The size has reached 1.6 million square kilometers about 3 times the size of France. It will require more than 450 years for the plastic to turn its form back to the molecular level. This problem poses a big threat the whole ecosystem. Not to mention that when disintegrated, larger plastic part fragmented into micro plastics that goes inside the body of marine life, which in the end also accumulated also in human body. Scientist have been studying the patch and huge efforts is being done to clean up this mess. Yet after all this tragedy we still can’t turn our back on plastic easily. There’s no way back.
Increase in plastic development and application of plastic is so rapid worldwide. However we can see that different countries have different policies and system in handling its wastes. While landfills, incinerators are most commonly used to solve wastes, some countries don’t have any good system in collecting and processing their wastes from household on to the final disposal facilities. Many people still dispose their waste to the river, and eventually ended up in the ocean. This is one of the main cause of the horrific marine pollution we are seeing right now.
Paper; A False Prophet
Many sees that going back to paper is perfect solution for the environment. However we will have to think more comprehensively to call this decision. It is unarguably true that a paper bag will disappear just weeks if left out on the ground or in the ocean while plastic bags will take way more than decades, thus paper does seems to be friendlier to the environment, but production process of paper needs far larger amount of energy and water for the same amount of material. Compared also with metal and glass, production process of plastics requires a lot less energy and less harmful waste. Improvement in material efficiency usage, and better processing technology, plastic products now are thinner, lighter, and more durable. Because plastic is resistant to corrosion, impact, UV rays and many other environmental factors, it doesn’t have to be replaced as often as other materials. Whether it’s used for components in a piece of machinery, underground sewage piping or a reusable water bottle, it can help save time and expense by reducing the need for maintenance and replacement.
Being in the plastic industry, we know all along that plastic provides lightweight, energy-efficient solutions for plastic packaging, both in its processing and transportation.
If you compare the use of resources in manufacturing paper compared with plastic, in water usage alone, the cost is much higher given that potable water is a resource that is in short supply in many regions of the world. The energy used to transport goods in trucks is much higher when shipping cardboard and paperboard.
For example, a fact sheet provided by the ACC notes that 2,000 plastic retail bags weigh about 14 Kilograms, while 2,000 paper grocery bags weigh 130 Kgs. For every seven trucks to deliver paper bags, only one truck is needed for the same amount of plastic bags. Additionally it takes 91% less energy to recycle a kilogram of plastic than it takes to recycle a kilogram of paper. Plastic bags generate 80% less waste than paper bags.
By using less material, plastics plays important part in our everyday life in reducing green house gas effect and energy saving.
Counterintuitively, plastics helps us protecting the earth by reducing waste, cutting down on greenhouse gasses emission, and saves energy at home, at the office, on the road. Plastic insulations, sealants and other building materials helps us reduce energy consumption on heating and cooling. Plastics are durable, long lasting, lightweight, cheap, and can be easily formed and replaces many products.
It’s application is endless, thus the consumption is increasing very rapidly. It is an undeniable fact that the long-lasting feature of plastics has an impact on the environment, things or packagings that are no longer needed are not easily disappear from our sight.
They are accumulated as wastes in landfills, and many other places around us. Its other feature, recyclable friendly, has actually –
provided some clues on how the problem is supposed to be solved, and also to support a cutting down carbon emission, and sustainable growth. Plastics packaging provides protection from contaminants, oxidations, and decays. Some foods last longer in storages thanks to plastics. With so much benefits provided by plastics to our wellbeing, the way to go is not to reduce and eliminate plastics and going back to paper, glass, or metal, but to mitigate the ugly side of plastic waste.
The Way Out
Researches to find a ‘Holy Grail’ of environmentally friendlier plastics seemed to have ended when several companies claimed to have found it. Using whole or partially plant based material, they claimed that their product will degrades fast and naturally in nature. While some of the product failed to provide all the positive features of plastics such as strength, clarity, etc, most of them requires more energy to produce which means it will promote global warming.
A study initiated by Imogen Napper and Richard Thompson from University of Plymouth England, compared 4 samples, namely Compostable, Biodegradable, Oxo-degradable, and conventional plastic. The biodegradable, oxo-biodegradable and conventional plastic formulations remained functional as carrier bags after being in the soil or the marine environment for over three years. The compostable bag completely disappeared from the experimental test rig in the marine environment within three months but, while showing some signs of deterioration, was still present in soil after 27 months.
Other alternative is proposed by Oxo-degradable product. It uses certain additives into conventional plastics so it will oxidized and rapidly disintegrated. But this solution posed even more problem than solution. Instead of being degraded, plastics just fragmented into tiny particles called micro plastics, unseen by our naked eyes. Micro plastics are now already found in oceans, rivers, tap waters, and wildlife.
Most of these environmentally friendlier plastics are now used only once, and only to be disposed and ended in nature, or incinerators, no different than conventional plastics.
Other strategy that we can use is to build an integrated platform for all the stakeholders like governments, corporations, and industry, to look at the same data and information. These stakeholders are often have difficulties in aligning actions amongst them. To solve a waste problem, we have to start with a good waste management. A good waste management of collection, transportation, sortation, and solution, will be the spearhead if we ever want to solve this problem.
Building a circular economy is the next step in solving plastic waste problem. Putting recycled plastic material in road making has been introduced. The use of recycled materials is also encouraged. Indonesia, along with Global Plastic Action Partnership have a target of 70% reduction of plastic waste in the ocean by 2025. Several strategies including gathering local waste processing plants, and encouraging collections of plastic wastes to be fed to recycling plants.
Managing waste produced from household and industries is to be improved if we want to reduce plastic waste in the ocean significantly. Indonesia’s Ministry of Maritime has also issued some policies and innovations on usage of recycled materials and how materials are processed.
However, there are some easy steps that we as individuals can do something about. Getting along with plastics is simply by using it wisely and efficiently way before it is used, use them only when really needed, re-use them whenever possible, dispose them in a way that it is convenient for recycling company to process further (washing, crushing, recycling).
The main thing about plastic waste problem, is that these wastes are not at the place they are supposed to be. Everyone is a link in a waste management chain. Recycling should be expanded more aggressively, considering just a mere 10% plastics are recycled right now. All plastics can easily be recycled as long as they are not intermixed, as there are many kinds of plastics and purity is of the essence here. What the people can easily do about waste is first reducing and sorting them by composing organic wastes, then sort recyclable and non-recycle-able wastes.
Basically plastics are easy to be recycled as long as they are not mixed / contaminated
Waste management can actually become a profitable business like some people do in Bekasi, West-Java. They create a movement Waste4Change which collect and sort waste and sell them to recycling plant. Waste4Change founder Bijaksana Junerosano said “ We collect and sort household waste more detail into 30 types of wastes”.
We don’t have to wait for the scientist to do their job and discover the ‘holy grail’ or the government to produce laws. We can start with ourselves, because the earth is ours and it is our responsibility to protect and maintain it.