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The Future of Plastics

Apr 20 2018

By William S. Becker *

In the classic movie “The Graduate”, Dustin Hoffman plays a young man who has finished college without knowing what his career should be. One of his father’s friends takes him aside and whispers a single word of advice: “plastics”.

The guy was right. Plastics is the third-largest manufacturing industry in the United States today. The industry has its own trade association, trade show and hall of fame. According to an industry website, its 900,000 workers in the United States produced about 107 billion pounds of plastics and resins in 2013. The World Economic Forum (WEF) predicts that plastic products will double worldwide by 2036.

There are more than 20 different major types of plastic in use today, lightweight, versatile, cheap and beneficial to society. The industry’s products are used in medicine, for example, in everything from latex gloves to intravenous bags and sutures. An enormous amount of packaging material is made from plastics. Overall, 300 million metric tons of plastics are produced around the world annually, half of it in products that are meant for one-time use or are thrown out within one year of purchase.

Enormous quantities of plastic packaging materials and consumer products end up in the environment, where they can last for hundreds of years. A dramatic example: The largest plastics “landfill” on the planet is actually in the ocean where currents have created the so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch somewhere between the size of Texas and the size of Russia.

The WEF estimates that when all of these external costs are included, including greenhouse gas emissions during plastics production, they amount to $40 billion annually, larger than the industry’s profits.

“It can’t really be avoided any longer,” according to the non-profit Plastic Oceans Foundation, “Single-use plastics are a human addiction that we must face head on. Plastic pollution is not only impacting our waters and marine life, but also the human food chain and our overall health.”

After studying the chemical trail of plastics, researchers at Arizona State University agreed.  “We are in need of a second plastic revolution,” researcher Rolf Halden concluded. “Smart plastics of the future will be equally versatile but also non-toxic, biodegradable and made from renewable energy sources.” The WEF talks about a “New Plastics Economy”.

For all these reasons, Earth Day is dedicated this year to changing behaviors and attitudes about plastics. The industries that make and use plastic products, the consumers who select and use them, the businesses that collect them and the cities that manage their disposal all have roles to play.

The good news is that plastics are being recycled into a wide array of products today, ranging from building materials and concrete blocks to clothing, jewelry and purses. Innovation is underway. India, among other places, is using plastics to replace asphalt in road-building. Other ideas include plastics made from pig urine rather than fossil fuels, plastics that are turned into oil, and plastics that are safe to eat. One brewery packages its beer in edible plastic rings for six-packs, just in case its customers want a snack with their beer. Plastics are being considered in the manufacture of cars.

There obviously remains an enormous amount of work to do, however. More than 90% of the plastics industry’s feedstocks are oil and natural gas. Incinerating, landfilling and even recycling plastics can have environmental and health drawbacks. The WEF points out that the many innovative programs to solve these problems are “too fragmented and uncoordinated to have an impact at scale”.

So, for all of these reasons, let’s raise our metal water bottles to the organizers of Earth Day for focusing on this issue.

At the same time, we know there are many other environmental issues that require immediate attention. In Part 2 of this Earth Day post, I’ll address another one that does not get nearly enough attention. A hint: It isn’t global warming.

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*William Becker, Executive Director. Presidential Climate Action Project

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