1. Introduction to Plastic Usage
Derived from the process of polymerisation and polycondensation using cellulose, coal, natural gas, salt and crude oil, many different types of plastics could be produced. Demand for plastics continue to grow over the years, where approximately 335 million tons of plastics were produced in 2016, and numbers are expected to rise by 40% over the next decade.
Plastics, being light, and durable, are mostly used in our packaging, followed by building and construction, other sector, textiles, etc. With many uses, plastics have raised the standard & quality of living among mankind and has created more jobs.
Since only 18% of world’s plastics produced are recyclable, 25% are incinerated, while the rests are discarded into the environment, climate has changed, food chain is disrupted, animals are endangered, and human’s life are toxified due to plastic pollution. To mitigate excess plastic usage, rewards and charges for plastics saved and used respectively could be introduced. Also, bring-you-own bottle could replace single-use plastic bottles through incentives.
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2. Benefits of Plastics to Mankind
2.1. Plastics for Packaging
Plastics can easily be moulded into many forms – plastic bags, food and non-food packaging. With the invention of plastic bags, items can easily be transported around, bringing convenience to humans.
Moreover, plastic packaging can store food longer, and prevents germs contamination when handled, thereby reducing the amount of spoiled food discarded and prevent spreading of epidemic diseases. Most importantly, potential injury can be avoided from accidental drop of shatter-proof plastics and poisoning by chemicals or medications. Alternatively, plastics can facilitate safe and efficient transportation of product from manufacturer to consumer without being crushed.
2.2. Plastics in Transportation
When the weight of a vehicle is reduced, fuel usage can be saved. To lighten a vehicle, plastics are being used to replace many parts. The reduction in fuel usage could minimise carbon dioxide emission. For instance, for every ten percent reduction in weight of car, fuel usage could be saved up to seven percent and every pound of reduced weight could save 25.3 pounds of carbon dioxide emission over the life of vehicle.
2.3. Plastics in Sports
To promote safety among sportsman, plastics are used to produce equipment, like plastic mouthguard, that could help to protect players. For leisure, protective sporting gears like flotation devices and helmets can keep children safe while they swim and cycle respectively.
Also, plastics could also enhance efficiency among players, where balls, rackets, and shoes could be used during the game. For example, the switch from leather to plastics in athletic shoes removes some load that is detrimental to the timing of an Olympic runner. Furthermore, many sports items (e.g. jerseys) are now more stretchable, and breathable, thereby providing more comfort to the users.
2.4. Plastics in Medicine
Plastics have created several advantages for various medical functions. In surgery, disposable plastic syringes could reduce disease transmissions, while medical pill capsules could ensure accurate dosages are administered.
On the other hand, artificial organs or prosthetic body parts are used to restore the form and function of body. For instance, people with hearing impaired can have plastic implants to allow them to hear sound again. As such, people live longer, and handicap person could just live as efficiently as any normal being.
2.5. Plastics in Building and Construction
Due to its nature – low costs, high resistance to corrosion, lightweight, poor conductor of heat, easily coloured and moulded, plastics are the second most heavily consumed in the building and construction industry. As plastics can hold different properties, ranging from acrylic, polyethylene, and composites, they can be manufactured into pipes, floorings, windows, etc, where they can easily be installed, used and maintained by people.
Additionally, plastics promotes hygiene as water would not be contaminated when being transported using plastic pipes. In terms of aesthetics, plastics can beautify the environment through innovative designs, features and dimensions. More importantly, since plastics are durable and anti-corrosive, buildings could be sustained for a long period of time, thereby lowering costs for consumers.
2.6. Social Benefit – Increase New Jobs
Other than the above economic benefits, more jobs have been created for citizens. For instance, more than 885,000 individuals are employed across 16,200 plastic facilities in United States. As plastics are versatile, the possibilities for new plastic management are endless.
3. Environmental Outcomes of Plastic Pollution
3.1. Land Pollution
As plastics may take up to 1,000 years to decompose, 85.7% of the plastics discarded ends up in landfill among other rubbish. The accumulation of plastic wastes may potentially filtrate pollutants into the soil and water.
3.1. Ocean Pollution
Since plastics are light, they may be blown away from landfill into the river and sea. Also, improper disposal of plastics on streets could also be carried by rainwater into the drainage system, thereby flowing into ocean. Researched has shown that more than 8 million tons of plastic is dumped into the sea each year, accumulating to 250 million metric tons in less than 10 years and there will be more plastics than fish by 2050.
4, Impacts of Plastic Pollution
4.1. Air Pollution
To reduce overflowing garbage, plastic trash is burned using incinerators. While technology allows generation of electricity through combustion, toxic smoke, containing harmful chemicals, like dioxin and furan, are produced. When inhaled, it could cause instant cough, shortness of breath and dizziness. Long term exposure could cause cancer and death.
4.2. Climate Change
When plastics are degraded under the exposure of sunlight or through combustion, methane and greenhouse gases are produced. As methane traps heat 86 times more than carbon dioxide, global temperature has increased, affecting ecological cycles – precipitation patterns have changed, presence of more droughts and stronger hurricanes. This ultimately would threaten the survival of fauna and flora.
4.3. Disrupts Food Chain
Currently, approximately 44% of all seabirds and 270 marine species have consumed plastics in the ocean. This posed physical hazard to their digestive system as plastic bits could be found, which is carcinogenic and could cause birth defects. Critically, this may be passed up the food chain, where predators, like humans, would be contaminated when they ingest preys.
4.4. Endangering Animals
Because of plastic pollution on both land and sea, habitat of animals is loss. As such, extinction rate of animals and plants are at least 1,000 times faster than humans. Plastic pollution has killed about 100 million marine mammals each year, as animals mistake plastic wastes as food source, or they are entangled in plastic bags, leading to injury, infection and death.
4.5. Toxic to Human Health
All the above consequences have detrimental effects to human health. For instance, the consumption of plastic-affected marine animals by humans would build up toxic in human body. Besides, the hazardous air produced from the production and burning of plastics could caused respiratory issues and adverse reproductive outcome – infertility, cancer, and malformation.
5. Potential Solutions to Excess Usage of Plastics
5.1. Mix of using Incentives and Charges for every Plastic Saved and Used Respectively
Combining the conventional way of charging for plastic usage, positive reinforcement could be utilised. For instance, when consumers buy their things and they bring their bag, their cost of purchases could be reduced by 10 cents.
By incorporating such a movement into the existing strategy of having 10 cents surcharge per plastic bag introduced, shoppers, who are price sensitive, may be discouraged from using it and bring their bag. To enhance effectiveness, the incentives and charges could be increased to 30 cents per bag saved or used.
5.2. Bring-your-own Refillable Bottle for Pay-per-use Drink at Discounted Rate
To discourage single-use bottles or plastic cups used at coffeeshops, businesses could charge extra to consumers who opt for using plastic cups. Besides that, businesses could provide discounts for those who bring their bottles to buy the drink.
As the volume of individual bottle varies, businesses could offer cheaper pay-per-use through a drink dispenser. Consumers could bring their bottles to refill these drinks, at certain rate (e.g. $1/500ml). Hence, consumers, who are price conscious or values smaller quantity would consider bringing their own bottles to dispense the amount they want, rather than paying for single-use plastic bottle or cup of fixed volume at a higher cost, thereby discouraging consumers from resorting to single-use plastics.
Although plastics have proved to be useful in enhancing the quality of our life and economy – providing more jobs, increasing human lifespan with greater hygiene, and protecting lives with equipment, the downside of plastic disposal and production have caused our environment to be severely, permanently damaged.
To prevent further aggravation, plastics usage must be reduced. This could be done through offering incentives and charges to consumers for reducing and using plastics respectively. Most importantly, public must be educated on plastic usage since young, so to instill such knowledge and discourage using plastics.