by Michael Shade, IQS Editor
If I were to look at the tag on my shirt’s collar, I’d probably see instructions for washing the shirt and some information about its composition. I happen to be in an office at the moment, so I can’t take off my shirt and look. But if memory serves, the shirt I’m wearing is composed of a mixture of cotton and polyester (and maybe a third ingredient – rayon or something like that). “Polyester” is a blanket term that can be used in reference to a few different kinds of polymers, though it’s most commonly used in reference to polyethylene terephthalate. You may know polyethylene terephthalate by its nickname: PET. If not, you’re certainly familiar with products composed of PET. Your soda bottles, your ketchup bottles, your mouthwash bottles and all manner of other bottle varieties are probably made of PET. You know PET as a variety of plastic. It’s likely that you think of plastics as non-metal, non-wood, non-stone, hard but sometimes flimsy things whose origin you’re not certain of but whose utility is eminently obvious.
Plastic tanks image courtesy of All Plastics and Fiberglass, Inc.
I bring up these examples because I want to emphasize the importance of plastics to us. At the moment, I am quite literally surrounded, enclosed if you will, by plastics. The fibers of my shirt are composed of them, as are (probably) my pants, socks and parts of my shoes. This is probably true for you, too. But if you’re wearing all cotton, wool or other non-polymer-fiber clothing, consider the medium you’re using to read this article. If your screen isn’t made of glass, it’s made of transparent plastic. The frame of your screen is almost certainly plastic. The mouse in your hand is plastic, as is your keyboard, elements of your computer’s processor and accessories, and so on, and so on. The phone in your pocket or on your desk is probably composed primarily of plastic. You may eat your lunch today with plastic utensils. Considering all of these examples, this should be obvious: our economy is intensely plastic-dependant.
Plastic materials image courtesy of Brogan Manufacturing.
So where do these products come from? A given plastic product could be the result of a large number of different, complicated supply chains. There are two main points of origin for all plastic products: original petrochemical products development and non-synthetic-polymer-based plastic products development. In other words, plastics are typically divided into two categories based on their composition: synthetic and non-synthetic.
Plastic bags image courtesy of Diversified Plastics and Packaging, Inc.
Plastics composed of synthetic polymers are products of petrochemical development. This means that these plastics are byproducts of oil and natural gas extraction, and they are processed from oil or natural gas sources. Examples of these materials include some polyesters, polystyrene, polyethylene and vinyl, all very common and widely used plastic varieties. Because the global petrochemical extraction and refinement infrastructure is so developed, synthetic plastics have become inexpensive and widely available. This makes them attractive choices for manufacturers. Also, especially in recent years, methods for recycling synthetic plastics have been developed that reduce the need for the creation of new raw plastic, and this has modestly increased the sustainability of synthetic plastic use.
You can probably see how concerns about sustainability could arise in reaction to the use of synthetic plastics, though. These concerns are based in the reality of the eventual end to the availability of petrochemicals, the negative environmental impact of petrochemical extraction for the purpose of synthetic plastic development and the poor biodegradability of synthetic plastics. Also, some studies have been conducted with the intent of determining the toxicity of synthetic plastic products to humans, though few have produced conclusive results that have been widely accepted by scientists and regulatory structures.
This brings us to the other main source of plastic products: non-synthetic sources. In response to the concerns related to the development of synthetic plastics, engineers have developed alternative solutions for the manufacture of new, raw plastic. These professionals have found that products that resemble synthetic plastics in terms of their physical properties and performance can be developed from non-petrochemical sources, including vegetable oils and fats, starches, cellulose and natural plant fibers. Non-synthetic plastics have been developed for use in the creation of disposable kitchenware, plastic bags and packaging as well as non-disposable electronic enclosures and textiles. The primary advantages to non-synthetic plastics are that they aren’t derived from petrochemicals and that some varieties are biodegradable.
Non-synthetic plastics aren’t without their drawbacks, though. Because the infrastructure for their creation isn’t as developed as that of synthetic polymers, non-synthetic plastics can be more expensive to produce. Also, non-synthetic plastics can’t always be recycled using the same equipment that recycles synthetic plastics. In fact, non-synthetic plastics can damage recycling equipment that isn’t designed for that purpose. Also, the biodegradability of non-synthetic plastic becomes moot if the material ends up in a landfill; biodegradation can’t happen in the absence of oxygen, and oxygen doesn’t reach most of the discarded, densely-packed materials in landfills.
Because of the finite nature of petrochemicals and the current limits of non-synthetic alternatives, industry, and indeed our economy, find themselves at a crossroads. Synthetic plastics are cheaper, and we’re still feeling the ripples of the recession from a few years ago, so the imperative to develop alternative plastic materials might seem small. Eventually, though, we’re going to expend our planet’s reserves of petrochemicals, and if we get all the way to that point without developing alternative sources for the products we need, it will be much harder to develop those alternatives under such stressful circumstances. At some point before that happens, it will take a combination of political will, innovative spirit and a lot of money to develop a permanent, sustainable alternative to synthetic plastics. As we’ve learned, we use plastics for everything. Eventually, we’ll have to find a solution the problem of sourcing the material. Let’s hope that solution presents itself sooner than later.