Alexander Parkes invented the first artificial plastic, which he publicly showed at the 1862 Great International Exhibition in London. Parkesine was an organic material generated from cellulose that could be shaped and retained when cooled after heating.
Plastic was initially defined as “pliable and easily formed.” However, it was only recently coined as a name for a class of materials known as polymers. Polymers are made up of lengthy chains of molecules, and the name polymer implies “many pieces.” Polymers can be found in abundance in nature. For example, cellulose is a common natural polymer that makes up the substance of plant cell walls.
Plastic’s widespread use began in the 1950s and has continuously increased since then. Plastic is now produced over 300 million tons per year. Plastic’s popularity stems from its inexpensive production costs and its numerous practical properties, such as lightweight, acid resistance, and flexibility. Furthermore, the flexible features of plastic inspire technical innovation, which leads to new solutions, improvements, and comfort, particularly in the domains of medicine, construction technology, and aviation and vehicle manufacture.
Types & Materials
Polyethylene, polypropylene, PVC, polystyrene, PET, and polyurethane are the most prevalent plastics, sometimes known as mass plastics. Mineral oil, coal, and natural gas are used to make synthetic plastics. Plastics production accounts for 4% of total oil and gas output worldwide. There are also semi-synthetic plastics made from natural polymers like cellulose, in addition to synthetic plastics. Moreover, organic polymers created from sustainable basic materials are becoming more widely available nowadays.
A considerable portion of the plastic is quickly discarded. Because conventional plastic is not biodegradable, poorly discarded plastic waste pollutes our environment for decades to centuries. Mountains of plastic are stacking up in landfills and the natural environment today. As consumption rises, there is a pressing need for long-term and comprehensive solutions to this problem.
Plastic products, such as polyethylene bags, water bottles, straws, and food containers, often have a short lifespan. We don’t value them enough to save individual pieces because they’re so inexpensive to create.
Due to a lack of a well-planned solid waste management system, India creates 15 million tons of plastic garbage each year, yet only one-fourth of this is recycled. This puts a strain on landfills and puts waste pickers, primarily women, in low socio-economic situations.
One of the most challenging aspects of plastic recycling is persuading businesses to invest in recycled plastic. There will be no demand for recycled plastics if there is no economic value in doing so. The cycle of creating and disposing of plastic will continue unless businesses begin to use more environmentally friendly, alternative materials (such as paper).
The plastic degradation pace varies depending on the material, although it usually takes 50 to 600 years. Almost every piece of plastic ever created and shipped to the landfill or dumped in the environment still exists, according to the US EPA (Environmental Protection Agency in the United States). The cycle continues as more plastic items are made every day.
Plastic Waste Management Programme in India (2018-2024)
The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) India, in collaboration with Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Private Limited (HCCBPL), Hindustan Unilever Limited (HUL), HDFC Bank, and the Coca-Cola India Foundation (CCIF), is working to reduce the environmental impact of plastic trash in India.
To move towards a circular economy, the collaboration encourages the collection, separation, and recycling of all types of plastics.
This project aims to:
- Create a socio-technical paradigm for transforming the informal to the formal economy of plastic trash management.
- Establish Material Recovery Centers to ensure long-term waste management techniques.
- Improve the socio-economic conditions of waste pickers by institutionalizing Swachhta Kendras under governance framework mechanisms.
- Create a technology-assisted knowledge management system: Their technical partner Mindtree and field implementing partners promote cloud-based traceability, accountability, and digital governance along the waste value chain.
Benefits of minimizing Plastic Waste
Reducing plastic waste has various advantages, including preserving natural resources, environmental protection, and cost savings.
The following are some of the advantages of minimizing plastic consumption:
- Reduces the amount of new raw materials utilized to reduce pollution
- Reduces greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute to climate change by conserving energy
- Reduces the amount of garbage that needs to be recycled or sent to landfills/incinerators in underdeveloped countries.
- It saves money since reused things are less expensive than buying new plastic.
Future of Plastics
Although recent progress in reducing carrier bags (PE) and drink bottle (PET) trash demonstrates that lifestyle changes are achievable, plastic is ingrained in modern society, and a world without it is implausible. Furthermore, it is difficult to change human behaviour completely, as evidenced by only 9% of plastic garbage is recycled3. Therefore, to make a meaningful impact on the plastic waste seeping into our ecosystem, we need a fundamental change in addition to these three solutions to the plastic waste problem (reducing, reusing, and recycling).
The solution could be a new malleable future in which biodegradable polymers replace traditional plastics.
Microorganisms can break down biodegradable polymers into smaller molecules like CO2, CH4, and H2O under aerobic or anaerobic circumstances. Polylactide (PLA), polyglycolide (PGA), polycaprolactone (PCL), polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA), poly (butylene succinate) (PBS), and poly (butylene adipate-co-terephthalate) are the most well-known synthetic biodegradable polymers (PBAT).
Biodegradable polymers and the 3Rs—Reduce, Reuse, Recycle—may help to reduce the amount of plastic in the environment. Still, more research is needed before PLA, or other biodegradable polymers can fully replace existing plastics.
The burgeoning need to Reduce Plastic Waste
Following are some simple changes people can make in their daily lives to reduce the burden of plastic waste in the environment and progress towards a circular economy:
- Carry a metal water bottle to prevent buying extra plastic water bottles.
- Buying used — refurbished office furniture stores can have products that are as excellent as new.
- When you go shopping, bring reusable bags with you, such as canvas tote bags.
- Choosing less-packaged products for your company’s shopping and procurement is one approach to make a substantial difference over time.
- If you haven’t already, make the conversion to paper, glass, or metal (preferable it being a reusable option)
Aside from that, think about areas of your organization where you may make more environmentally responsible decisions. For example, plastic bottles, straws, and cutlery all contribute to the daily production of unneeded plastic garbage.
Because even a tiny piece of garbage in the environment is too much, we need commitment, knowledge, and investment in innovative, cutting-edge recycling technologies that help remanufacture more used plastic into high-quality new items. We can progress towards a zero-carbon and zero-emissions future by changing how we make, use, and recapture plastic while highlighting the value and adaptability of a material that allows us to accomplish more with less.
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