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Plastics and the Environment

Sectors of plastics usage

The Plastics Age

Worldwide production of plastics accounts for about 200 million tons/year. This is to be compared to a worldwide production of paper of about 330 million tons/year and has been steadily increasing during the last 50 years. The phrase "The Plastics Age" has been coined, which applies to the second half of the twentieth century. Plastics contributed to the development of important sectors such as transportation, communications, electronics, informatics and improved many aspects of everyday life.

Most of plastics goes into flexible and hard packaging, where it faces the competition of paper and metals.

Main advantages of plastics

  • Plastics are light
  • Plastics are chemically stable
  • Plastics are versatile in production and performance, that is they have a wide range of properties that make them suitable in many different sectors
  • Plastics are easily processed with low energy consumption (consider that a temperature of about 1000°C is required to make a glass bottle, whereas 250°C is enough for a plastic bottle)
  • Plastics are relatively easily recovered and recycled

Thanks to such qualities, in many cases plastics have replaced formerly used materials (paper, glass, wood, metals and ceramics).

Lachine Canal, Montreal

Do plastics imply advantages only?

The main disadvantage is pollution. The enormous growth of consumption and spread of plastics in all sectors traditionally covered by other materials, leads to the problem of disposal of used articles. An environmental problem is rapidly developing, because of the "indestructible" nature of these materials.

How can we dispose of plastics garbage?

Traditional methods of garbage disposal (dumping in garbage grounds and burning in incinerators) cannot be applied to plastics because:
  1. some plastics produce toxic gases when burning;
  2. nearly all plastics when burning produce a big amount of heat. It may be exploited to yield energy, but otherwise it is dispersed in the environment, causing excessive temperature rise (thermal pollution);
  3. plastics are not degradable, as they require very long times (hundreds of years); therefore, when left in the environment, there they stay.
Answers to environmental problems can be found in plastics recovery after separate collection, and recycling by re-using the same materials at the end of their life cycle. For long-time solutions, proper emphasis must be given to the development of degradable plastics. Research activities in this area are ongoing in private and public research institutions worldwide. Alternately, plastics can be burned to produce energy.