Plastic Life Cycle Assessment and Waste Management
Author: Ailanit Davydova | December 2014
In recent centuries, the advent of plastics as a viable material with which industrial society has expanded through because of its applicability in use and efficiency of production. The materials economy of plastic has changed dramatically since its mass implementation to society in the mid 20th century. An understanding and review of dioxins in the environment shows the burden of plastic waste management on the international community. Different methods of solving this issue, vary from setting levels of dioxin in food in European countries, to life cycle assessment of plastic, which is the material that is a major portion of incineration. The assessments allow for strategic change in design from cradle to grave to cradle to grave and a more strict application of the waste hierarchy in waste management. From recycling plastic to the use of bioplastics, the eradication of dioxins is closer when these processes are in the forefront. It is crucial to not undermine the effects of dioxin despite its seemingly small concentration in the environment, it is one of the most potent and persistent organic pollutants known to man.
Key words: plastic, dioxin, life cycle assessment, waste management
The materials of our daily lives have much to do with our relationship to our places and our enjoyment of life. Plastic is a material that has been implemented heavily in the 20th century to increase the ease and convenience of enjoying the consumer products that came with the late stages of the industrial revolution. Plastic became a versatile medium by which things can be easily packaged and shipped to consumers all over the world. There are many different types of plastic that have functioned to the needs of the producer as well as consumer such as polyvinyl chloride plastics or polyethylene (Subramanian, 2000: 259). The efficient manufacturing process of plastic allows it to be produced at a low cost as well as its ability to form into many different textures and forms makes plastic the material with which the modern economy has spread around the world. Nowadays plastic is manufactured in many different places such as Pakistan, Taiwan, China, European and American countries (San Clements, 2014: 10). It is implemented in products that are also produced and used all over so it is plays a significant role in the global economy. Nevertheless, the effectiveness and efficiency of plastic overshadowed the entire material’s economy.
While plastic is so useful, what occurs to it after it is rendered optimized in use is where the international pollution issue ensues. While studies show that certain polymers are designed to degrade, “most plastics are designed for one of the four options: landfilling, incineration, recycling and biodegradation” (North, 2013:2). If it is in the light of the sun, then it can photodegrade which means it becomes smaller pieces but it does not actually disintegrate. What this means is that all plastic that has ever been is still on earth. Plastic that has been processed through the waste stream may not take up the most volume or the most weight, but it is a prevalent source of pollution to water, air and people. Unlike wood or metal, plastic does not render high quality material after a few uses. It tends to have an extensive lifespan and so there are extensive strategies to curb the amount of room it takes up in a landfill. There are many measures of this such as incineration, which began extensively in the 1990s when plastic recycling was just beginning and there was an understanding that this material requires attention. Matielllo’s studies have expressed the significance of incineration is that it introduces harmful pollutants into the environment that are specific to plastic consumption. The prevalence of this method as well as the aftermath of the incineration processes can be fully seen in the effects on land and people’s health all across the world. The use and recovery of plastic has increased significantly in recent decades and there is a lot of data that shows what the effects of recovery and what is becoming of the plastic that are sources of pollution.
Production and History:
Plastic production has a very long and extensive history in America. Much of the material that is plastic based today was invented as a way to replace luxurious and sparse resources from abroad (San Clements, 2014: 13). The way plastic is produced cannot be answered with one linear method. One of the many virtues of plastic is that it is able to be all sorts of varieties in texture, shape, density and much more. Not all plastic is created equal or even for the same purpose. Polymers, which can be found naturally like in rubber and latex, are also the bonds of carbon found in plastic. One of the most comprehensive definitions of plastic production and its variety is summarized by Michael San Clements in his guide for plastics as he saw it from the plastic productions textbook Industrial Plastics: Theory and Application. He says of plastics:
The distillation process [of oil] is part of the refining process. It’s used to separate out different fractions contained within the oil. Once separated, different parts are suitable for different uses. As you heat oil, certain compounds will turn to vapor at lower temperatures than others. As component A turns to vapor, it flows through a tall column where it can be cooled, returned into liquid form, isolated and collected. The remaining crude oil can then be heated to even greater temperatures to capture fractions higher boiling points. Olefins are produced by further processing light naptha. Two of the olefins, ethylene and propylene, comprise the basic building blocks of most plastics. (San Clements, 2014: 48-9).
What San Clements describes is essentially how plastic was able to be popularized not only to consumers but to people looking for affordable, durable consumer products to invent. This was the case of many things we still know and use today, from nylon clothing to Tupperware to even Styrofoam (San Clements, 2014: 35, 58). Many of these inventions were byproducts of excess plastic that could be isolated and contained. Nonetheless, the production of plastic is not exactly what created its success. Prior to being implemented in mainstream culture in America, plastic was used exclusively by the military in World War 2. San Clements describes the history of America after it had entered the war, when many resources such as silk were not easily obtained since Japan had most of the silk resources and they were an Axis power. In this way plastic-based products began replacing wood, metal and other minor resources and not only performed as well as them but sometimes even better. This can explain why in 1950 plastic production was 1.7 million tons and by 2011 it had reached 280 million tons (San Clements, 2014: 40).
While it might be appropriate to say that we are living in the “Plastic Age” (San Clements 2014: 15), it is also significant that there is much less understanding of what plastic does to the environment. That is, durability, affordability was much more important to people than were the effects that it might have on health of the people and ecosystems. The knowledge of the effects on human health from plastics was not particularly the result of its use, but rather its disposal. Since plastic can be relatively harmful while it is in use, the most harm and pollution it creates is in disposal. The reason for this is that incineration is a very popular use of mitigating the amount of plastic that is in landfills. The way it impacts human health is evident by many studies and has taken much notice in the international community.
From packaging, building and construction, automotive, electronics and many others, plastics perforate our society. There seems to be a pervasive opinion amongst many studies that in fact, repurposing the resources that are used for plastic to recycle them or convert them some way or another would ameliorate the type and amount of pollution caused by plastic(PlasticsEurope, 2014: 5). Not only this but it would contribute in smaller ways, to the betterment of the life cycle and closer to a “cradle to cradle” model which would allow for the decrease in the amount of pollution plastic creates(Subramanian, 2000: 262). Most of these models begin with finding an alternative route of plastic out of the landfill and into some sort of production.
While the usage of plastic has increased as a result of global development, Subramanian’s report articulates the desire in the early 1990s to change the indiscriminate disposal practices. In the report by Subramanian, there was a significant difference the municipal solid waste in the US every year. While the volume of waste in landfills increased from 1993 to 1995, by 1996 the values were those of 1994: 209 million tons. This represents all waste and not just plastic. It also shows that the amount of waste recovered from landfills increased every year to 27% in 1996 (Subramanian, et al; 2000: 254). This data also showed that over 12% of the municipal solid waste was plastic which is not superlative in percentage of landfill contents and is inferior to the amount of food waste and wood waste produced. In the 90s, there was a movement to decrease dependency on landfills and this initiated the process of recycling, recovering as well as converting waste to energy (Subramanian, et al; 2000: 255).
Research shows that waste that was put into landfills at about 83% of the total in 1986 to roughly 55% of the waste in 1996 (Subramanian, et al; 2000: 256). Despite this, the amount of plastic entering the waste stream has only increased since the 1960s. Not only has it increased but the variety became overwhelming to contain or to sort. While it is still such that polyethylene is the largest fraction of the plastic waste produced, with 10.83 million tons in 2000 when the study was conducted. The second largest resin of plastic which is PVC ran upwards to 2.58 million tons (Subramanian, et al; 2000: 257).
In a study of a variety of landfills throughout Europe, a considerably developed region, there was an assessment of incineration as a way to manage plastic waste. Incineration has occurred throughout the early 1960s but was extensively used to save space in landfills following concerns that there might not be enough land for them. At least for the United States, the latter part of the 20th century saw a decrease use of landfills from a decrease of 17% between 1990 and 1996. The study also points out that, “all of America’s garbage for the next 1000 years will fit into a single landfill measuring 120 feet deep and 44 miles square” (Subramanian, et al; 2000: 256). There are many factors that contribute to the decrease pressure on landfills such as material recovery programs but incineration introduced in the early 1990s also alleviated this pressure.
Nevertheless, incineration of solid waste included many types of waste, not just plastic. It is still quite certain that the inadequate and emergent incineration of plastic has created the known hazardous pollutant known as dioxin (World Health Organization, 2010: 2). Dioxin is a persistent organic pollutant that is volatile even in small concentrations can be an effective pollutant. Dioxins and furans are claimed to be generated under the conditions where any organic material in the presence of halogens, particularly chlorine While there can be natural events that accumulate large amounts of the persistent organic pollutant (POP) such as forest fires or volcanic eruptions, much of the harmful exposure to dioxins are found in industrial processes (WHO, 2011:2). According to the World Health Organization, the United Nations Joint Food and Agriculture Organization created a provisional tolerance level of dioxins of 70 picograms per kilogram a month (WHO; 2010: 3) which is a very small amount that can truly only be measured by microscopes. There are no tolerance levels for water or air but that is mostly due to the harm of exposure being mostly attributed to the food chain. For this reason, the issue of dioxin as a result of plastic waste incineration is a crucial international pollution issue. Not only is this issue a matter of the travel of dioxin but also of the public health, of people who do not have a direct link to the processes other than the system of bioaccumulation in the environment.
When there is an issue of public health, it is integral to discuss the variety of scale in which dioxins are exposed in the environment. Particularly, the presence of dioxin in an incineration site warrants concern for public health. The study by Matiello reviews other studies of various landfills and their proximity to people and it seeks to discover the various health issues that might be concentrated among residents near landfills. Her research shows that “where an incinerator had been the only source of pollution in a defined area for many years in the past, the harmful effects on the health have been consistently detected in a later period” (Matiello, et al; 2013 732). Also, she acknowledges that the research is spanned over 40 years, in which show that the incineration process, at least in this region of the world, is improving to release less dioxins into the environment and this is evident in some of the research. In this review of studies, Matiello discovers that women were more likely to be susceptible to the effects of dioxin pollution especially if they were processes heavy metals in the incinerators. In many studies that span the UK and Scotland there have been no detectable associations with decline of health and proximity of landfill to people. Matiello decided that this is due to this region of the world being able to develop their incineration processes over the span of four decades. Moreover, there was a test on the landfills in Belgium, Denmark, France Italy and the UK found “significant increase in congenital malformations in people living nearby sites containing dangerous substances” (Matiello et al 2013 728). The proof of incineration process may show that there can be an association but it is not a guaranteed condition.
In contrast to the developed European Union countries of Belgium, UK and so on, an incineration study of Syrian municipal waste shows other data. What this report emphasized that others did not is the importance of soil as the medium in which dioxins are more likely to show up. The reason why dioxins have the strongest affinity to soil in contrast to other places such as water or air, is because it offers a microbial structure and since dioxin has low motility (it does prefer to stay in fatty tissues, after all) it prefers the comfort of the soil. The fact that soil is unable to thwart it as it usually does from contamination since it does not do well with strange components shows how persistent this substance truly is (A. Hanano, et al; 2014: 327). For this reason dioxin is often tested in soils before it is tested in food products. In the samples of soil tested near the incineration sites, out of the 15 samples, all had levels of dioxin and the control sample did not have any dioxin. The highest concentration of dioxins, about 50 ppt was found near the vicinity of an oil refinery and the lowest amount of 20 ppt was in a forest incineration site (A. Hanano, et al; 2014: 328).
Syrian reports and EU reports show similarly how proper incineration can be safer than other industrial processes that create large concentration of dioxins. The WHO reports that “whereas inadequate incineration creates [dioxins and furans], modern incineration technology destroys them” (WHO, 2011: 4). What they are implying is that if the incineration process is successful, it does not have to create dioxins. While the EU example can be supportive of this evidence, as well as the Syrian example which can show Syrian industrial processes are not anywhere close to the improvement of the EU countries’ incineration processes, they are not as severe as alternative processes. One of the most explicit examples of primitive and underdeveloped methods of waste management is the incineration of electric equipment. In a study of China, which is the biggest importer of electronic waste anywhere in the world, the emphasis is focused on dioxin levels around these alleged recycling facilities. Since electronic equipment has many metals, the easiest way to extract them is to melt them. This of course, leads to the incineration of plastic, a material often associated with electronics. Since the incineration of electronics is not the recommended or controlled method of extraction and recycling, the presence of dioxin is found very frequently. Li reports in his study, which he notes is inconclusive in part because of the lack of structural data available on the emissions around these sites that are quite inadequate to be called facilities. He does report however, “the total PBDE concentration in the air around e-waste burning sites is 58 to 691 times higher than that for other urban sites” (Li, et al; 2014: 534). PBDE is a relative of dioxin, since it is a POP and is released by the heating of plastics that have brominated flame retardants in them. Dioxin is also a POP released in this process but the data for it is not as extensive as those of Syria and the EU. What is striking amongst these reports is the support their evidence provides for the WHO’s claim that dioxin is largely caused by inadequacies in industrial processes that involve plastic.
As mentioned before, public health is notably affected by the perseverance of dioxin not only in the proximity of incineration facilities but in the food people eat. In Lake’s study he describes, “…the major route of transfer where there is no history of occupational exposure is through food…for about 90% of body burden…due to the likeliness to bioaccumulate in fatty foods such as fish, meat (Lake, et al; 2014: 186). While this will be discussed further along in the paper, it is interesting to see how dioxin appears in facilities that create it: the landfills. The way dioxin travels is notable by its bioaccumulation but that is not the only measure of its toxicity to people. It is important to understand why this chemical is considered to be detrimental to human health, along with other ways in which plastic can pollute the quality of life for many.
Despite the presence of dioxins being known since the mid twentieth century, knowledge about its effects on public health were not particularly known until recent decades. Among the health defects that are caused by dioxin are waste syndrome, immunotoxicity, carcinogenesis, dysfunctional immune and reproductive systems and many others (Hanano, et al; (2014): 327). All of these essentially are chronic diseases that debilitate a person’s basic functions and cause generational defects. One of the more popular examples of the effects of dioxins’ toxicity is the use of herbicidal warfare by the American army in Vietnam during the 1960s. Agent Orange as it was called caused so many irreversible effects on the people of Vietnam and the land that are still present today. Nevertheless, the presence of dioxins in European countries is not from herbicidal warfare like they were in Vietnam. In the early 2000s, with many incidents accumulating that were no longer negligible, there was an assessment by the European Union authorities on the prevalence of dioxins in the food chain. At this point it is crucial to point out that dioxins in the food chain have appeared outside of the context of incineration proximity, particularly with the use of zinc oxide has been found in some parts of the world (Hoogenboometal, et al;2015: 675). While these findings are important in acknowledging that there are some natural ways of acquiring dioxins in the food chain, the quantity and evidence of dioxins by means of incineration is staggering and more significant.
In 2001 the tolerable levels of dioxins and furans in food were enacted by the EU Scientific Committee on Food in tolerable weekly intakes or TWIs of specific foods (Hoogenboometal, et al; 2015: 672). There were many incidents before this policy that showed a correlation between incinerators and dioxins in food, specifically in the Netherlands and Switzerland when several large municipal solid waste incinerators were shut down and new ones were built and nearby levels of dioxins and furans decreased dramatically in milk (Hoogenboometal, et al; 2015: 674). An example of inadequate burning of waste, open-air burning of household waste in Campania, Italy also showed up in elevated levels of dioxins in cheese produced in that region. On an international scale, in 2002, an animal farm in Belgium used dried citrus pulp pellets that were contaminated with dioxins, and those pellets were imported from Brazil! Similarly, in 2013 shipments of peas and rapeseed from the Ukraine that were in fact contaminated with dioxins ended up in a French corn production (Hoogenboometal, et al; 2015: 674-675). Incidents like these, as recent as these show that this is a crucial international pollution issue. Unfortunately, in some ways at least, the only true methods of regulation are these exposure levels that are enacted by the government where the dioxin is found, rather than produced. Since dioxins travel through the ecosystem it is difficult to point figures on where they exactly form, sequester in the food chain and then sold to the public. While the EU imposed levels of dioxin to be met by the beginning of the 21st century, they have been appearing in food for a decade afterwards. The stability of this chemical is such that its presence in the environment is difficult to disperse just with detection in food, where it is essentially way too close in harm for people. In Hoogenboometal’s report, he declares, “it was clear that most animal-derived products would to some extent contain dioxins and furans, and too strict limits for these ubiquitous present contaminants could actually endanger the food supply by removing a significant proportion of food from the market” (Hoogenboometal, et al; 2015: 673). What this means for incinerators, whose repeated shut downs and retrofitting processes, accommodation for lower emissions of dioxins is pertinent. However, just like the TWI that the EU imposed on food production, the limit of dioxin concentration would be another method of adapting to the pollution issue. There are many ways in which the effects of plastics can be analyzed in order to mitigate the pollution issue. What are clearly issues of space in a landfill and that of toxicity, they can be addressed in a life cycle assessment of the many resins of plastic.
Life cycle assessments are useful tools for understanding the entire process of any given consumer material. It is a method of assessing the risks and costs associated with each part of its cycle, as to optimize its production costs while still producing something of acceptable quality. The basic life cycle is of any material is extraction of natural resources, production and manufacturing, selling, consumer use and finally disposal. Arguably the most noticeable form of pollution and means of toxicity of plastic is developed in the disposal phase. Since this is the most toxic phase, there must be a reason why this material is still being so widely used today. Well for starters, San Clements claims that the production of plastic is nowhere near the costs of producing other raw materials such as paper. It is clear that plastic lasts longer, is more durable in some ways and is cheaper to make. This may in fact support the overwhelming design of ‘cradle to grave’ of consumer products, just because of how cheap they have become to be produced. The ‘cradle to grave’ design in fact is more of a avoidance of conscious consumerism, since it is a life cycle where waste or excess material is created after use of a product. For example, a whole apple is created by nature, eaten by a person and discarded—and if it discarded directly into the earth, the earth is able to take it up and capitalize on its remains, leaving no waste in its wake (Siracusa, et al; 2014: 152). A plastic container however, follows a cycle where its remains are not biodegradable and must be changed or transformed by other means less natural. These two processes, ‘cradle to cradle’ and ‘cradle to grave’ show the conflict of consumer products that are based on petroleum, such as plastic: they do not degrade at a rate that is renewable or useful for the world around them.
Early, it was mentioned that above all, plastic is used in packaging (PlasticsEurope; 2014: 4) the most, making it the ultimate consumer material. It is not a substitute for construction materials or automotive materials nearly as much as it is a means of packaging the very goods that internationally people are exposed to daily.
For these reasons, this paper will emphasize life cycle assessment for packaging and in conjunction with dioxin affects on food, direct use of plastic packaging on food products. Siracusa begins by validating the use of the life cycle assessment (LCA) by saying that the International Organization for Standardization “considered LCA a valid tool to be used because it is the compilation and evaluation of the inputs, outputs and the potential environmental impacts of a product system throughout its life cycle” (Siracusa, et al; 2014: 152) showing the importance of this methodology in discussions of the international impact of materials that are used everywhere. LCA uses certain factors that are part of the risk of using certain materials for the product. Some of these risks can include climate change, human health and ecosystem quality, the last of which is something that is a particular concern in dioxin exposure if a material is incinerated at the end of its life. Siracusa’s study was specific to vacuum packaging of food in polyethylene resin of plastic. The use of this type of packaging is meant to increase the lifespan of the food being packaged and also suitable for long distances in travel. This study focused on energy consumption optimization (Siracusa, et al; 2014: 153) which means that their analysis is programmed to find the most risk in the part of the life cycle that most detrimental or excess in energy usage. What this concluded was that the most energy used was actually in the production end of the life cycle. Not only does the study claim that the most energy is used in the production sector in comparison to the other sectors, it proves that this is the portion of the cycle that causes the most environmental impact since it imposes the ‘cradle to grave’ design. Since the bag is versatile for many types of foods, it is unsuitable for recycling since it is likely to be contaminated with oil and food waste. It is also then, slated for landfill disposal, which is 4.8% of all energy used for the product (Siracusa, et al;2014: 155). This supports many theories of mitigation of dioxin must be considered in the early stages of plastic production which is harmful even excluding dioxin production as a particular risk. It can also be conclusive that plastic and food have a pretty toxic relationship in the long run.
Another life cycle assessment shows the risks associated with products that are slated for incineration and landfill waste management. This is one of the challenging things about plastic consumer products, that the ‘cradle to grave’ design makes it so that the waste hierarchy does not preside too well and what occurs with most products is that they are more likely to be disposed in a landfill than other waste options. Generally, the waste hierarchy indicates that the most energy efficient usage of a product is to reduce the amount one uses and then to reuse, and thirdly recycle if possible and only as last resort dispose in a landfill (San Clements; 2014: 89). One example of the ineffectiveness of waste hierarchal thinking is the use of take out containers, which would be reusable except when they are contaminated with greasy or food so much that it is more of a hassle to clean them than to just get another one. It is an example of externalized costs, where we value the price of a newer product rather than investing in the quality of the products that already exist.
Life cycle assessment in focus in municipal waste incineration (MWI) is beneficial to understanding the risks associated with the process of incineration and what sorts of materials are to be avoided in this process to create the least amount of pollution. One of the largest issues found with this assessment is the leaching of chemicals from the incineration site. The residues that are created from the incineration process are inconclusive at the present rate in controlling “the leachability of MWI residues” (Sloot, et al; 2001: 761). The leaching contributes to the various issues associated with this process such as elevated pH levels in the environment around the incineration site, elevated levels of carbon dioxide and the presence of acid rain (Sloot, et al; 2001; 758). Unfortunately this study did not mention dioxin which would have been helpful for comparative purposes, but that is possibly due to the lack of dioxins present since incineration in this region, the European Union is largely used for energy production. So despite this being an attempt to make energy, there are many pollution issues associated with it. The issues that are attributed to it in this article are still concerns among the international community, particularly acid rain. Nevertheless, this assessment in conjunction with another one about the waste to energy LCA in Europe shows an alternative picture. In comparison with traditional landfill use, “the MWI scenario not only treats plastic waste but generates energy whereas the landfill scenario only treats the waste” (Lazarevic, et al; 2010: 249), clearly showing that waste-to-energy incineration is less risky than the use of landfills, despite the pollution issues as emphasized by Sloot’s study. Of course, there is always the lesser of two evils and in Lazarevic’s report, there is even a lesser evil than the MWI—recycling! The report conjures an equation to show that recycling is in fact less harmful than waste to energy, whatever the rewards of that process. The equation is the difference between environmental impacts of mechanical recycling from the environmental impacts of incineration over the environmental impacts of incineration, expressed as a percentage. This case shows that the negative value (which is almost always the case) shows that recycling “provides less environmental impacts than incineration” (Lazarevic, et al; 2010: 249). All of this evidence proves once again that recycling is a necessary device for the existing plastic that is created despite the overwhelming examples of pollution.
In support of these various reports, Al-Salem’s report agrees with the idea that waste to energy production, also known as feedstock recycling is useful. In this report, the process saves an average of 30% in fuel consumption (Al-Salem, et al; 2010: 104). This type of recycling is the product of incineration, which uses not just heat and pressure to deal with waste, but is treated so that it provides chemicals for the chemical industry. Globally, the production of plastic materials has reached maximum capacities leveling at 260 million tonnes in 2007, even though in 1990 the production capacity was estimated to be at 80 million tonnes (Al-Salem, et al; 2010: 104). In the U.K 95% of the plastic recycled is done so by the primary level of re-extrusion, which is the simple reconstitution of the polyethylene resin of plastic to a material of similar quality if not a little lesser. This study reviews the four ways of recycling by way of explaining the technological requirements, all of which in their holistic approach, include the prevention of dioxins and furans formation as part of their processes. The study notes how worldwide, these processes and technologies are being implemented in waste prevention policies. An example of this is Korea, where the waste to energy process seemed desirable but very expensive, so the Iron and Steel Making Company decided to reinvest in coal produced energy (Al-Salem, et al; 2010: 120) which supports the idea that certain countries in the world have implemented production of certain materials but cannot afford to create the most effective waste management.
In places where recycling is crucial to combat landfill pressure, such as the U.S, incineration is a necessary technology. The volume of plastic waste is reduced significantly when it is incinerated, close to 99% (Al-Salem; et al; 2010: 153). As mentioned before, the rate of plastic use is so high in relation to its waste accumulation, that creating effective method of disposal is necessary even from an environmental conservation perspective. Even the producers of plastic, the PlasticsEurope company, stresses the important on a zero-landfill policy of plastic production. Despite the increase in volume every year of 1.5%, plastic waste in the EU is mostly used for energy recovery, 34.1% and recycling 25.1% while the rest goes to disposal 40.9% (PlasticsEurope; 2014: 9). While this might seem like a lot is going to landfills, in some European countries there is a recycling rate of over 100% where those places import other countries’ recycling. This pattern is also evident in an American study, where the total energy usage to the creation of plastic is a mere 4% of the entirety, plastic recycling has only steadily increased in 1997, but since then the rate has declined, despite increased more recycling centers available in the U.S (Subramanian, et al; 2000: 7). In America, it always seems to be a value issue that available technology is not implemented or capitalized to its full potential.The study urges the use of waste to energy production from plastic since it would reduce the volume up to 90% (Sumramanian, et al; 2000: 9). The amount of BTUs for the production of the top three plastics is equivalent to the production of a coal power plant, meaning this energy is in fact valuable, but it must be addressed to the public, which in the beginning of the 21st century, seemed to be quite difficult. Despite all these efforts of recycling campaigns and investments in technology, there is something displaced from the understanding of material value in plastic. While pushes for recycling must keep moving forward to deal with existing plastic waste accumulation, the design error cradle to grave is still unaddressed in recycling. There are alternatives to this design that begin much before recycling takes place.
Even in a society like the European Union, there is a considerable amount of waste that is generated from the production of plastic. Recycling and proper incineration are helpful in alleviating the pollution concerns, but they do not address the larger issue. Synthetic polymers, like the ones produced today are not meant for biological degradation which is what is causing all the trouble in the first place. The search for biodegradable plastics or polymers is on the rise since the global battle with synthetic plastic waste management. Biodegradable plastics, or bioplastics would succumb to oxidation, weathering and chemical breakdown much like any other simple organic material. While bioplastics are created from corn and other food products, it is worthwhile to emphasize that synthetic plastics are biodegradable as well, under the right conditions. One example is the rubber tree is the source of natural rubber and is able to degrade by means of peroxidation and the application of acidic solutions. Synthetic rubber behaves this way as well until it is made into industrial products (Scott; 2000: 1). What this has to do with is not the molecular make up of the synthetic polymer but the presence of antioxidants that are used in manufacturing processes. What this can mean however is that polymer production does not have to go through all forms of industrial processes and still retain its biodegradability. An unusual study by Scott in 2000 shows that biodegradable plastics that are derived from corn and other food based products biodegrade faster than synthetic plastics. The issue however is much of the same as with recycling—biodegradable polymers need to be in the right place at the right time. Scott claims,
“Bio-based polymers are based on natural products which are bioassimulated by hydro-biodegradations. However they have to be made technologically acceptable by chemical modification. The commodity plastics already have satisfactory technological properties but must be modified to become oxo-biodegradable. During manufacture and post-consumer disposal, polyolefin appear to be ‘greener’ materials than biologically-based polymers. They can be incinerated with heat recovery or mechanically recycled to utilize the ‘energy content’ of plastics, provided this is greater than the energy used in the recovery and recycling operations” (Scott; 2000: 6).
Scott is mentioning the crucial rule of waste hierarchy, which is to reduce. His argument that biodegradable plastics is quite supportive of current trends, in some ways it is a form of greenwashing—an attempt to make the consumer believe that it is environmentally sound when it is actually not much better than the alternative. Scott’s 2000 study explains the phenomenon that has occurred for almost the last two decades, that synthetic plastics are not going anywhere anytime soon, and while we can, we should make the best use of them.
In a somewhat roundabout way, the dangerous of plastic have been discussed, superimposed on the historical integration of plastics into the modern world and what the international repercussions are. Plastics have made our lives easier as consumers and retrofitted industrialization with consumerism. They have been adapted to energy production and they should be consistently pushed in that direction. Life cycle assessment shows that plastics need to be integrated into a larger system of recovery, whether it is energy or reuse as a consumer material. The constant increase, however small it may seem, in tons of plastic, does not seem to be stopping anytime soon. In many ways this is harmful because we are not prepared to combat the disposal rate as quickly as the use rate of plastic. But it is crucial to utilize and impose strict regulations on the waste management of plastic. There are many examples throughout the world where the proper waste management of plastic has only increased the quality of life for people. It is this that should be the motivation behind an increase recycling program and widespread effective incinerators. It also would not hurt, to reduce our use of plastic and demand for alternatives such as glass and refillable consumer products. Product stewardship is an unaccounted portion of life cycle but with increased awareness, it should be integrated into the way we interact with the versatile world of consumptive products.
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Featured Image: KATHMANDU, NEPAL – DEC 19, 2013: Pile of domestic garbage at landfills. Only 35% population of Nepal have access to adequate sanitation. Copyright: / 123RF Stock Photo