This is a short guide outlining some of the more clear pros and cons of plastic use in society today and moving forward.
Summary – Pros & Cons Of Plastic
Plastic certainly has it’s cons – there’s no denying plastic pollution (on beaches, in rivers and lakes, in the ocean and on land) from plastic waste, microplastics, the presence of BPA, the fact that plastic is made from petroleum, the non biodegradability of plastic and other factors – have all impacted humans, animals, the environment and even the economy (the cost to address plastic related problems) in different ways.
But, plastic also gives us the opportunity to address a lot of our needs (and many wants) in much easier, safer and more efficient ways, across many sectors. Something that many people are unaware of is that plastic actually benefits the environment in several ways by helping us save resources and reduce emissions at the production level (the stage after plastic is disposed or discarded is a different story).
Going forward, instead of demonising plastic altogether, we might look at how we can extract maximum benefits out of plastic, whilst minimising the downsides as much as practically possible.
Rather than point at plastic as the sole problem, it might be the way we use plastic (i.e. in a more sustainable and smarter way) that we look at more intensely. Redesigning, alternatives and substitutes, reducing, re-using and recycling, along with new breakthrough scientific and technological solutions, are all potential ways to do this.
This is going to take private and public groups across the whole manufacturing and waste management system working together to come up with better solutions.
Consumers also have a role to play with our daily behavior and purchasing decisions.
Cons Of Plastic
Read more on the cons and potential negatives of plastic on society as a whole in this guide. But, as a summary of some of the cons:
- Plastic contributes heavily to land, ocean, river and beach pollution and littering
- It costs a lot of money, and is in many instances not profitable to clean up and remove plastic up from the ocean and the environment and either repurpose it or dispose of it in a number of ways (theconversation.com)
- Plastic builds up in the environment, in animals (via ingestion), and in our bodies
- Animals can ingest plastic or get tangled in it, or even experience abrasion injuries from some plastics
- Some of the numbers and research around Microplastics are still unclear. We know these small bits of plastic are becoming a problem when plastic breaks down in the environment. Microplastic fragments are being found everywhere in the environment, including in our water supplies and food. Micro plastic can be found in seafood, but it’s unknown how much stays in the gut/digestive tracts of the animal or organism – which is usually removed before we eat the seafood, and how much gets into the food supply via other organs and even the canning or packaging process. Micro plastics can also be found in drink bottles. It’s unknown the full and definite impact micro plastics are having on the environment, animals and humans. But, it doesn’t seem like a good idea to keep letting micro plastics keep building up and compounding. The human health impact of microplastics and other plastic related factors is still unquantified and unclear in many ways
- VC in PVC the most potentially toxic plastic for our health and environment. No other plastic contains, or has the potential to release as many dangerous chemicals. There are issues with incinerating PVC or sending it to some landfills because of the lead, mercury, phthalamites and chlorine involved in a PVC product’s creation. Although, it should be noted that more economical and easier ways to recycle PVC are becoming available.
- There’s a concern plastic food containers leach BPA into our food, and plastic drink bottles leaches it into our water. Phthalates are also a concern. BPA is found in polycarbonate plastic in baby bottles, sippy cups, and reusable water bottles.
- Other chemicals that give plastic their rigidity or flexibility (flame retardants, bisphenols, phthalates and other harmful chemicals) have toxicity concerns when they potentially leach out from the product that contains them
- Plastic is mostly non biodegradable compared to other more organic materials – it takes many years before it can break down naturally in the environment. Some sources indicate that some types of plastic may never fully break down
- Some plastics can’t be recycled for various reasons and end up in landfill
- Some plastics can’t be processed in a recycling plant due to how the product they are manufactured in is designed, due to food contamination, due to the chemistry of the plastic, or due to other reasons
- Plastics can only be recycled a certain amount of time before the polymers and plastic fibres break down and become weak – so, most plastic will either end up in landfill, being incinerated or being littered
- Recycling some types of plastic isn’t economically or environmentally viable (because of the market value of that plastic, or the energy used to recycle the plastic in garbage trucks and recycling equipment)
- Plastics use up resources like petroleum to manufacture
- Plastic waste and other plastic related issues cost a lot of money to address and clean up
- In developing countries, or countries with poorly structured waste management systems or a lack of a waste management system at all, uncontained and mismanaged plastic is a huge issue in streets and in water sources. There’s a small number of Asian and Pacific countries that are responsible for most of the uncontained plastic waste in the world – the rivers in this small number of countries also carry the plastic out to the sea
Pros Of Plastic
Read more about the pros of plastic in this guide about the way in which plastic benefits society, the environment and the economy. But, as a summary of the pros:
- The properties of plastic allow us to do things to run and maintain a safer, more economical and easier society that many other materials can’t
- Not all plastics are single use or short use – some plastics, like some construction plastics, last decades (so the use we get out of them is great compared to other materials)
- Plastic provides a lower cost alternative to other materials for uses like packaging
- Plastic might take up less space in landfill than other materials (some sources say plastic take up 7 times less space than paper).
- Plastic can be used for waste to energy and incineration waste disposal (i.e. it can be burnt for energy)
- Some plastics don’t produce toxic fumes when incinerated like other materials – this is assuming the technology used is environmentally friendly enough
- Other incineration type waste management options like gasification and pyrolysis can process plastic with minimal emissions or pollution (but, admittedly, both have other issues with cost, scaling etc.)
- Some sources say – if there was no plastics packaging available and other materials were used, the overall packaging consumption of packaging mass, energy and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions would increase
- Using plastic (which can be light and strong) for packaging can mean we save on transport costs, but also transport emissions, because vehicles are carrying lighter weights
- The production of plastic can use less than half of the energy some other materials require to produce
- Plastic helps prevent food waste (by conserving fresh food longer). Less food waste means less deforestation, land clearing and agricultural chemical inputs
- Plastic helps with hygiene and safety in society for humans (with food, and medical waste for example)
- Plastic used in textiles helps us save a lot of resources compared to using cotton and wool or some other land grown fibres
- Plastic is used in industries and products like plumbing and piping everyday to help with human sanitation and hygiene
- Plastic parts in products like automobiles make them lighter and more fuel efficient
- There’s still a lot of potential to better recycle and re-use the plastic we are producing
- There’s still a lot of potential to develop technology to produce more eco friendly and sustainable types of plastic (like bio plastics for example)