Plastic… no thanks?

Plastic… no thanks?
23 Mrz 2021

Plastic is a truly wonderful material: light, cheap and easy to make. Almost every product contains some form of plastic, whether clothing, IT equipment, furniture or even the aeroplane we fly on holiday with. The material paved the way for our modern consumer society, but it also has a dark side.  

Plastic: a problem

Contrary to the original intention to market it as a durable, high-quality material, plastic has become a cheap throwaway product. Around 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic have been produced since its discovery in 1907 – more than 368 million tonnes of it in 2019 alone.

Worldwide and European plastics production since 1950 (Source: Statista)

Plastic is still not being recycled enough. The current recycling rate of 49 per cent leaves a lot to be desired. But the recycling rate doesn’t tell the whole story. Part of the waste continues to be exported and burnt. The burning releases toxic substances which pose a hazard to people and the environment. A lot of it still pollutes the sea as well, with an estimated 8 million tonnes of plastic ending up in the oceans each year. Animals eat plastic and starve with full stomachs, or due to a blocked digestive system, or they get trapped in the waste and suffocate.

Another problem is ever-scarcer fossil-based resources. Accurate predictions as to when the raw materials may run out are impossible, because nobody knows how much petroleum there is underground. Experts predict that the raw materials could be exhausted by 2050. We’ll need to come up with an alternative to fossil-based plastics by then, at the very latest.

Of course, the most sustainable alternative to plastic would be to do without it; but this is easier said than done. The material is needed in many sectors due to its properties.

Plastic in electronic equipment

Electronic equipment in particular benefits from the advantages offered by plastics, and can even help conserve resources. Many electronic devices are equipped with innovative plastics which save energy and ensure that less electricity is used.

The ability to insulate electric current and to withstand loads makes plastic the ideal material to create a safe and efficient electricity supply.

Furthermore, the hazards associated with electricity are reduced. Plastics have a great deal to offer when used as flame retardant, and are increasingly used for protection in vehicles or device housings.

Computer mice made of coffee grounds

Coffee grounds can be more than just the leftovers from your morning cup of coffee. In one experiment, a team of researchers from Hanover succeeded in manufacturing a biocomposite out of coffee grounds. The petroleum-based polymers could be replaced with up to 40 per cent coffee grounds. In tests, it was possible to use the biocomposite for manufacturing computer mice.

Bioplastics made from sustainable raw materials

Researchers have been working on an alternative material for some time now. In this context, one often hears the term “bioplastics”. But bioplastics often lead to misunderstandings. The prefix “bio” is not comparable with the “bio” standards for organic food. Generally, the plant matter used does not come from strictly controlled and certified production. The required materials are generally grown in monocultures, and treated with pesticides and fertiliser which are harmful to the soil and groundwater. Generally, the raw materials come from sugar cane, maize or potatoes. Many raw materials for bio-based plastics compete with food production and therefore result in an ethical dilemma. So other sources of raw materials are needed.

“Drop-in” solutions can already replace conventional plastics at an industrial level. Here, sustainable raw materials replace petroleum-based plastics in existing production processes. Their properties and chemical compositions are almost identical to their petroleum-based counterparts – which makes them ideal for longer-lasting products. They conserve fossil resources, but their biodegradability is equally poor. Only a few bio-based plastics are biodegradable and even then, industrial composting equipment is needed to make it happen. Depending on the application, most bio-based plastics still need further additives, which makes recycling and decomposition considerably more difficult.

Is recycling plastic the solution?

One of the most important activities when handling plastics is to return them to the recycling system and use them as recyclate for new products. Currently, this is more expensive than making new plastic, and offers manufacturers almost no added value. In 2017 the cyclos-HTP Institute investigated just how recyclable the waste in the plastics recycling bin really is. According to their study, a third of it is not recyclable at all. The other two thirds could only be recycled to around 40 per cent recyclate. A large proportion of the waste is not reused, but is processed thermally instead. The problem of the low recycling rate is partly down to a lack of recycling plants, but is also due to insufficient commercial and political pressure. Packaging legislation (VerpackG) introduced in 2019 has a target recycling rate of 63 per cent. However, so far, this value could not be reached.

Further EU regulations could be issued in the future. As part of the “Green New Deal”, the European Commission intends to continue promoting and extending the circular economy. Here, primarily, new regulations shall be put in place for the use of recycled materials.

Summary

A growth in demand for bio-based plastics can be expected in the future. So far, however, it is hard to see an ecological advantage. Although they conserve fossil resources, they bring a whole host of other problems with them.

Further innovative alternatives are in development, meaning that plastics could be made from fungal spores, algae, thistles, milk or wood. So there is no lack of innovative approaches. However, it is questionable whether the materials can be manufactured in industrial quantities.

Although plastic is a material with many advantages, at the end of the day it also creates many problems. It is not enough just to avoid plastic: rather a suitable system is needed which regulates the handling of plastic from start to finish.

 


Lisa Neulichedl