Is Plastic Our Own Death Warrant?

By Ashley Dube

Every time I went out, whether for a stroll, jog, road trip or any other outdoor activity I was astonished as the sheer amount of waste littered all over the atmosphere. It raised questions in my inquisitive mind as the material was largely one – plastic. Why plastic? Why has it become so popular? Why is plastic waste control so difficult to achieve?

As an arts majoring student, it is difficult to answer these questions readily as I chose for the adventures of the heroes of the first liberation struggle or reading the heroics of the great figures in history, the likes of Napoleon, Alexander The Great just to mention but a few over the more complex organic chemistry associated with plastic chat. All the talk of monomers, polymer, polymerization associated with plastics seemed alien to me. But thanks to the internet of things I knew I was a google search away and couple of hours of research to get the answers I so craved.

The following are my findings, which I so want to share in this writing as well as every chance I get whether peer or stranger. Enough waffling and let me get in to the thick of things. Plastic are widely in packaging industry. It serves several important functions in our modern lives; which are the primary reasons it has been relied on. Plastic protects vulnerable products from damage whilst in transit and from contamination or damage by moisture, humidity, gases, microorganisms, insects and light. This is because plastic as a material is chemically inert.

I wondered what do they mean by chemically inert? A material is known to be chemically inert if it is hardly affected by external environment. Unlike one other material which may be used for packaging like metal, iron as a common example how it rusts readily when exposed to moisture and air.

Plastics are so widely used as they preserve products for longer which reduces waste by giving people time to consume them before expiration. Plastic packaging also allows for the transportation of contents over greater distances, so that we have access to a wide variety of even non-local produce that in turn encourages trade all over.

But one may ask that surely other materials can satisfy all the mentioned above, so why are organisations still hell-bent on using plastics. I found out all these and this is why: plastics are safer as they are shatter resistant, containers do not break when dropped or knocked over, hence make them useful for certain environments. And as a result I have noticed the toy industry have adopted plastics as material of choice. Moreover, plastic packaging is lightweight and can take less space than alternatives giving the same strength.

They are also versatile and hence are transformed in many different ways. They have the ability to be transformed in many different ways due to a wide variety of processes utilized for plastic manufacturing. More importantly plastic is recyclable and can reused and create new products.

With all this how can plastics be a problem then? They seem God-sent, I thought. Then I  stumbled across a journal highlighting how they pose a huge problem to the environment and the ecosystem. Plastic pollution is one of the most pressing environmental issues as rapid increase in production of disposable plastic products overwhelms the world’s ability to deal with them—particularly in Africa where garbage collection systems are rather inefficient or non-existent in some parts. The conveniences plastic offer has resulted in a throw-away culture and that reveals the material’s dark side: currently single use plastics account for forty percent of the plastic produced every year. Many of these products such as plastic bags and food wraps have a lifespan of mere minutes to hours, yet they persist in the environment for hundreds of years.

This is a problem as plastics in nature are non-biodegradable thus cannot be reduced by action of microorganisms.Commonly used plastic ‘poly-vinyl-chloride’ (PVC) release harmful chemicals into the surrounding soil which seep into groundwater and numerous water sources affecting drinking water in turn. In addition, microplastics which are tiny plastic fragments of less than 5mm in length may seep in drinking water via  surface run-off, wastewater effluent, combined sewer overflows, industrial effluent, degraded plastic waste and atmospheric deposition.

Okay fine so how do these microplastics harm us then? The effects are devastating, borderline annihilating. These minute fragments in the human body release chemicals which potentially leads to cancer, chronic inflammation and overall disruption of the immune system. Plastics are causing much harm to wildlife too, and it is a consequence of entanglement or starvation. Aquatic animals such as seals and whales are strangled by discarded fishing gear as an example.

So what is the solution to all these? I wondered, it seemed simple I thought, as plastics are recyclable we should just recycle them. But recycling in itself poses a further problem as the collection of waste is labour intensive. And sorting these is also a difficult task as plastics may look similar but they all have different characteristics at a molecular level and as a result differ in application. The recycling process may turn to be more expensive than the original process and as a result organisations shying away from it.

And this is my piece, a small humble research. It cannot be denied this is the material of choice but are we also signing a death warrant to the environment?  Are there any viable solutions to this problem or we just have to adjust and adapt?


24 June, 2023