Plastic has transformed everyday life; usage is increasing and annual production is expected to exceed 300 million tonnes by 2010. In this thematic final paper on plastics, the environment and human health, we summarize the current understanding of the benefits and concerns surrounding the use of plastics and look for future priorities, challenges and opportunities. It is clear that plastic brings many social benefits and offers future technological and medical advances.
However, concerns about use and disposal are diverse and include accumulation of waste in landfills and natural habitats, physical problems for wildlife as a result of ingestion or entanglement in plastic, leaching of chemicals from plastic products. to wildlife. and humans. However, perhaps the most important major concern implicit in this volume is that our present use is not sustainable. About 4% of the world’s oil production is used as a raw material to make plastics, and a similar amount is used as energy in the process. However, more than a third of current production is used to make packaging items, which are then disposed of quickly. Given our dwindling fossil fuel reserves and our limited capacity to dispose of waste in landfills, this linear use of hydrocarbons, through packaging and other short-lived plastic applications, is simply not sustainable. Solutions exist, including material reduction, design for end-of-life recyclability, increased recyclability, development of bio-based raw materials, strategies to reduce waste, application of life cycle analysis, green chemistry, and assessment approaches. risk revised. Such measures will be most effective through the combined actions of the public, industry, scientists and legislators. There is some urgency, as the amount of plastic produced in the first 10 years of the current century is likely to approach the amount produced in the entire previous century.
Many of the current applications and anticipated benefits of plastics follow those described by Yarsley and Couzens in the 1940s. Their account of the benefits that plastic would bring to a person born nearly 70 years ago at the beginning of this “age of plastic” was counted with much optimism:
It is a world free of moths and rust and full of colors, a world built largely with synthetic materials made from the most universally distributed substances, a world in which nations are increasingly independent of localized naturalized resources, a world in which the man, like a magician, does what he wants for almost all the needs of what is below and around him (Yarsley & Couzens 1945, p. 152).
The durability of plastics and their potential for various applications, including their widespread use as disposable items, were expected, but not the problems associated with waste management and plastic waste. Indeed, the predictions were “how much [would be] a brighter and cleaner world than the one that preceded this plastic age” (Yarsley & Couzens 1945, p. 152).
This paper summarizes the current understanding of the benefits and concerns surrounding the use of plastics and looks for challenges, opportunities and priorities for the future. The content is based on papers presented on this thematic topic on plastics, environment and human health, along with other sources. Although selected citations are given to original sources of information, we refer the reader primarily to discussion of a particular topic and associated references in thematic articles. Here we consider the question from seven perspectives: plastic as a material; accumulation of plastic waste in the natural environment; effects of plastic waste on the environment and wildlife; effects on humans; solutions for the production, use, disposal and management of waste; biopolymers, degradable and biodegradable polymer solutions; and political measures.
2. PLASTIC AS A MATERIAL: AN OVERVIEW
Plastics are economical, light, robust, durable and corrosion resistant materials with high thermal and electrical insulation properties.