Plastic: the challenges of the future

Light, malleable, long-lasting and inexpensive. The invention of plastic revolutionised modern society, contributing to the development of humanity. But the abuse of disposable plastics has become a huge and serious environmental problem, calling for new measures and new approaches. And the chemical industry is part of the solution.


The upside and the downside

Plastic is everywhere and even where it shouldn't be: in the oceans and in the stomachs of marine animals. Plastic pollution is currently one of the greatest challenges facing humanity. UN forecasts for the Environment point to the possibility of there being more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050. The scenario is catastrophic and can only be reversed with a change in behaviour on Man’s part. It is crucial that the cycle of disposable plastic is interrupted and that we invest in the circular economy.

However, it is important to note that plastic has such interesting properties that it has made it a widely used and transforming material in modern society. We use plastic to produce environmental technologies, to manufacture essential products, such as mobile phones and computers, to manufacture automobiles and appliances, and we rely on plastic for the much desired advances in medicine.

Plastic is light, flexible, versatile, resistant, long lasting and inexpensive. It is a synthetic material, a polymer, the result of many chemical experiments. Because it does not exist in nature, it is 100% artificial and, once produced, it takes decades or even centuries to degrade. The durability of plastic is perhaps its best sustainability feature, but it is also its downside.

We need plastic to live, but we also need a smart solution to take advantage of its qualities and, at the same time, prevent this material from contaminating the environment.

It is in Man’s hands to choose sustainable products or to reduce dependence on single-use plastics and change consumption habits for a circular economy: reducing, reusing and recycling is the solution.

The invention of the 20th century

The preference for plastic arose during World War II, to fulfil the demand for light and durable materials that would facilitate military actions. After this period of war, the world began to experience an era of unbridled consumerism and plastic - because it was cheap and versatile - became popular and a great business.

Faced with an explosion of new products that flooded everyday life, polymers were at the forefront, to the detriment of other materials, and revolutionised modern society. Computers, fibre optic cables, telephones... all began to use plastic in their manufacture, which guaranteed them lightness, robustness and durability. The car industry uses it in the manufacture of vehicles, reducing the weight of cars and increasing energy efficiency gains. Medicine developed with the hygienic and disposable nature of plastic and food preservation increased with plastic packaging, reducing food waste. In the fashion industry, plastic has also gained strength. Polyester, lycra and nylon were easier to wash, cheaper than natural materials and became very popular with consumers.

Since the 1950s, the plastic industry has grown, and the material has been considered one of the greatest inventions of the last century, contributing to the development of humanity.

In fact, the first plastic materials appeared in the late 19th century, when hunting was still allowed and elephant ivory was widely used in the manufacture of various objects, such as piano keys and billiard balls.

The excessive practice of hunting threatened the elephant population with extinction and it was then that an American manufacturer of billiard balls launched a contest in which he offered ten thousand dollars to anyone who was able to invent a synthetic alternative to ivory. The young American inventor John Wesley Hyatt (1837-1920) accepted the proposal and, in 1869, perfected celluloid, but it was in 1907 that the Belgian chemist Leo Baekeland (1863-1944), naturalised American, created the first entirely synthetic and commercially viable plastic: Bakelite.

That was when the era of modern plastics, made from petroleum, coal and natural gas, began. The key to this new process was polymerisation, which consists of synthesising, from various chemical reactions, several smaller molecules in a larger one, giving greater durability to the material. Since then, hundreds of plastics or polymers have been created by petrochemical companies for the most varied uses, such as polyester, PVC, nylon, polyurethane, teflon and silicone.

The plastic age

Studies carried out by scientists at the Anthropocene Working Group show that human impact is giving rise to a new geological era: that of the Anthropocene or the Age of Humanity. Everything indicates that plastic - a material that does not degrade - will be one of the greatest traces that Man will leave to the world.

Today, about 40% of the more than 448 million tonnes of plastic produced annually are for single use, largely used as packaging to be thrown away within minutes of purchase, which include cups, bags, straws, packaging and disposable cutlery.

If we continue at this pace, current forecasts show that global plastic production will increase strongly in the coming decades: it is expected to reach 550 million tonnes by 2030 and 33 billion tonnes by 2050.

In addition to disposable plastic, high levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) released into the atmosphere, concrete, aluminium and fertilisers are other examples of the human footprint.

The plastic waste island that floats in the Pacific is 1.6 million square kilometres in size, which is more than 17 times the size of mainland Portugal, the Azores and Madeira.

It is an ecological disaster and is the largest oceanic waste dump in the world, with 1.8 billion floating pieces of plastic, weighing around 80,000 tonnes. In addition to contaminating the entire ecosystem, they kill thousands of marine animals annually.

There are containers, bottles, lids, cotton buds, ropes and fishing nets. Animals that ingest plastic suffer from suffocation, perforation of the intestines and starvation. This tragedy is also a threat to human health, since the fish we eat is contaminated with microplastics in their stomachs.

It is estimated that about eight million tonnes of plastic reach the oceans each year. According to the UN for the Environment, the distribution of plastic in the ocean is 15% on the surface, 15% on the beaches and 70% on the seabed.

Combater o desperdício

Descartar um material com alto poder de permanência somado à nossa capacidade de consumir cada vez mais e reciclar pouco, tornou-se letal para o Planeta.

Por isso, em Janeiro de 2019, as gigantes químicas mundiais uniram-se e formaram a Alliance to End Plastic Waste, uma organização sem fins lucrativos que promove soluções para eliminar o desperdício de plástico no ambiente, especialmente nos oceanos.

Com um investimento de 1,5 mil milhões de dólares para os próximos anos, a nova aliança pretende desenvolver tecnologias e modelos de negócios que trabalhem com reciclagem e capturar os resíduos plásticos antes que cheguem aos oceanos.

Em Portugal, a Bondalti também faz parte da solução. Consciente de que o Planeta Terra não é descartável, a empresa sensibiliza há vários anos os colaboradores contra o uso de plásticos descartáveis, promovendo diversas iniciativas, como ações de limpeza de praias. Além disso, a Bondalti tem vindo a alertar para a necessidade de mudança de comportamentos, distribuindo lancheiras térmicas e garrafas reutilizáveis aos colaboradores, além da colocação de ecopontos nos diversos edifícios.

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