Plastic is a modern wonder material. The reason why plastic is widely used in unmistakably because of it’s ease of manufacture in a variety of shapes, colours and texture. Added to that it’s low cost and durability. This has made the application of plastic stretch all the way from carry bags to automobile and aircraft components. Unlike metals, plastic can be manufactured in large quantities for a fraction of the cost. This makes the presence ubiquitous.
So ubiquitous that plastic is one of the top 3 sources of pollution in ways which could not have been imagined when it was first invented. Plastic waste pollutes land, water and air. The biggest source of plastic pollution is water pollution because of the fact that most human waste ultimately reaches the ocean. This waste is mostly untreated because less than 10% of all plastic is recycled. While this form of pollution affects ocean life, we are affected directly by plastic pollution which ends up in landfills and ultimately reaches ground water. It is estimated through a study in 2017 that 87% of all tap water samples contain plastic pollutants. Plastic degradation also releases several substances which have been linked to cancer. These facts and many more point towards a strong case for curbs on plastic usage given that plastics take several hundred years to degrade. But the case is far more complex than it seems.
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For one plastic is primarily used for the ease of manufacture. One a scale of 1-10, 1 being very tough to manufacture and 10 being very easy to manufacture, plastic rates at 8 whereas cast iron will rate at 4. It takes less capex cost to set up a plastic manufacturing unit and it can be set up in as little as 150 square feet of space. The raw material is easily available, and the transport of finished goods is easy because of their light weight. This makes it very attractive for underdeveloped and developing countries to set up plastic manufacturing units. This is not the case with various metal manufacturing units where there is very capex for furnaces (for extraction) and foundries (for casting), running into several millions of dollars.
There is another aspect to plastics which makes it almost indispensable. That is the significant reduction in weight of automobiles and aeroplanes by the use of adequate amount of plastics in all the areas except chassis / fuselage to reduce the weight and thereby increase fuel efficiency as well as making aerial flight possible. Can you imagine a plane entirely made of metal? It can be debated if such an aeroplane will even be able to fly at all.
So, one hand, we have plastic making a huge environmental impact by way of polluting land, air and water. It is estimated that by 2050, the total weight of plastic weight in the oceans will be more than the combined weight of all fishes in the oceans. On the other hand, we have plastic playing modern life possible through the various benefits by virtue of its ease of manufacturing, ease of transport and versatile usage. It is extremely difficult to imagine a world without plastics due to the fact thet it is used literally everywhere. But what we can imagine is a world in which plastics are used with a lot of caution and progressively moving towards greater and greater recycling. There are a lot of areas where plastic usage can be stopped with immediate effect, like single usage plastics (spoons / plates / carry bags / straws etc). And there are other areas where plastic usage can be reduced such as in cookware.
It would be safe to say that it is tough to imagine a world without plastics. But what we can do is use them with mindfulness, only when their usage makes sense for both the wallet as well as the environment.