In the final part of this series, we’ll be diving into the large industry that is plastics — some of the ways that the industry is useful and the ways that it’s not. In addition to this, we’ll be discussing bioplastics and breaking down their complexities.
First of all, a brief history lesson is needed. How did we even start producing plastics? It all began in 1846 when a chemistry professor by the name of Christian Schönbein spilled a container of nitric and sulfuric acids. After mopping up the substances with a spare cloth apron, he hung it up by the stove to dry. To his surprise, the whole thing went up in flames. After doing some more research on nitrocellulose, Schönbein discovered that it could be molded to form a cool new material: plastic.
It’s no secret that plastics are everywhere these days. Take a look around your house or workplace. You’re bound to find at least a couple items within your sight that are made of this popular material.
“Plastic waste gets a lot of attention when photos of dead whales with stomachs full of plastic bags hit the news,” said a special report from NPR in 2019. However, that’s not the only issue here. According to The Guardian, plastic’s production starts the process with a lot of environmental harm by creating at least 23 million tons of greenhouse gasses. The industry is responsible for four to five percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Plastic’s production is only estimated to grow in the next two decades.
An article published by PBS said that the plastics industry underwent a production increase during the COVID-19 pandemic. A report by the American Chemistry Council predicted that plastic will be the fastest-growing chemistry industry by 2030. It was actually one of the only industries to see growth (although smaller than usual) in 2020, a year when most industries suffered a decrease.
Clearly, our reliance on plastics isn’t going away anytime soon. To bring it back to the ongoing pandemic, we now have many more reasons to require the use of plastics in our everyday lives. Life-saving personal protective equipment, such as masks, can be made of plastic. For many people, these materials are a requirement to stay safe.
However, advances have recently been made to find a more sustainable version of plastics. It’s a word that has been thrown around a lot, and you may already be using a form of it: bioplastics.
Let’s take a second to decompose this information (pun intended). To many, bioplastics sound like the perfect sustainable alternative to synthetic plastics. Well, it’s not that simple. In addition to ensuring that bioplastics are decomposable and compostable, we need to ensure that their manufacturing is better than that of petroleum-based plastics. According to a Columbia University news item quoting a 2017 study from Environmental Research Letters, “switching from traditional plastic to corn-based (polylactic acid) would cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent.” The study also concluded that if traditional plastics were produced using renewable energy sources, greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced 50 to 75 percent.
A study conducted by Environmental Science and Technology in 2010 measured 12 different kinds of polymers (chainlike molecules that are the basis of all plastics) based on green chemistry principles and found that the top four plastics were all made with bio-based materials. However, the science is still undecided as bioplastics in this study were not ranked the highest in terms of life cycle assessment. These metrics may very well have changed in the meantime.
The next time you find yourself using a biodegradable plastic bag at the grocery store, take a closer look. Use alternatives, like reusable totes! Let’s continue reusing, recycling and reducing. Think back to Christian Schönbein, and remember that even plastics science has come a long way.