By pivoting away from fossil fuel-based plastic, we can greatly decrease plastics' negative environmental impacts, writes Jennie O Loughlin of DCU.

Modern life is heavily dependent on plastics. They're everywhere, from water bottles to live-saving medical implants. We have grown to rely on these synthetic compounds. It is hard to imagine a life without plastic. So how did we get to the stage of generating 400 million tonnes of plastic waste a year?

In the 1860s, after the Industrial Revolution, the production of consumer products started to outpace natural resources and things like ivory, wood and tortoiseshell were growing scarce. This worried the production companies, although not necessarily because of the potential extinction of species such as elephants or the destruction of their natural habitat.

Concerned conservationists

It also concerned conservationists. A New York Times article, in 1867, warned of the coming extinction of elephants in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) from poachers if an alternative to ivory could not be found. At that time, ivory was used to make things like pen casings, combs, and billiards balls to name a few. With costs of these natural resources increasing because of their growing scarcity, the race was on to find cheaper alternatives. From RTÉ Radio 1's This Week, less than a third of Ireland's plastic being recycled

Celluloid became the first semi-synthetic plastic, made predominantly from cellulose, a natural chemical that helps give plants their strength. Not only was it cheaper than sourcing ivory, but it was also more versatile and so could be used in a wide variety of applications.

This new material could be moulded into various shapes, unlike ivory. Water didn't change its texture, unlike wood. It didn’t corrode, unlike metal. Everything from children’s toys to glasses frames to photographic film were soon being produced from celluloid.

This had a levelling effect, making what was once only available to the wealthiest in society widespread and obtainable for many. Celluloid still had some downsides, like its flammability, and it wasn’t long before more stable, fully synthetic plastics took centre stage.

Plastics made from petroleum such as nylon and polyethylene were developed in the early 20th century. At the onset of the Second World War, the plastics industry saw a rapid expansion. Nylon, originally used in silk stockings and marketed to women with extreme success, was used for parachutes, rope, and helmet liner. Plexiglass was used as a cheaper alternative in aircraft windows.

Petroleum-based plastics

The innovations of plastic production required during the war led to a boom after WWII. For the past 80 years we have grown to rely on petroleum-based plastics not only for conveniences but for essentials as well.

Its use in modern medical applications is perhaps the clearest example of the necessity of plastics. Sterility of syringes, surgical gloves, and even hard surfaces made of plastic can be assured as most plastics can undergo rigorous disinfection without any alteration of its properties.

Medicines and blood samples stored and transported in plastic containers are free from contamination or moisture degradation. The biocompatibility of plastics makes it suitable for medical implants, such as hip replacements and tracheal stents, at a reduced cost compared to metal implants such as titanium. During Covid-19, plastic based PPE played a crucial role in protecting healthcare workers.

It might sound counter-intuitive, but certain plastic use can lead to lower greenhouse gas emissions. The durable, light-weight plastics found in car parts such as steering wheels and fenders help to reduce the weight of cars, lowering CO2 emissions and improving fuel efficiency.

A study by the EPA in the US found that for the year 2021, CO2 emissions of vehicles has fallen by 23% since 2004. Plastic insulation in homes and businesses make buildings more energy efficient, while also reducing energy costs.

Project Drawdown

Plastic packaging of food products can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by extending the shelf life of food and reducing food waste. Project Drawdown, an organisation dedicated to mitigating climate change, suggests that reducing food waste is 15 times more important than recycling in reducing humanity's carbon footprint.

Plastics have advanced society in numerous ways, but the negative environmental impacts of plastic production and disposal have rightfully been at the forefront in recent years. Although plastics are essential to modern life, is it also essential that they are produced from petroleum?

Celluloid was made not directly from fossil fuel, but from cotton. Bio-based plastics like celluloid fell out of favour early in the 20th century because of the advantages of petroleum-based plastics. An OECD study showed that 90% of the greenhouse gas emissions of plastics comes from its production from fossil fuels, while the remaining 10% comes from the end-of-life emissions of the plastic.

By pivoting away from fossil fuel-based plastic production, we can greatly decrease plastics' negative environmental impacts. In the 21st century, technology has advanced to allow the production of durable and/or compostable plastics from renewable sources.

These bio-based plastics have the benefits of traditional plastics and in some cases can be recycled in established waste streams. Companies such as Avantium and BASF have produced bio-based plastics from feedstock. Irish research groups are uncovering even more sustainable ways of producing bio-based plastics, not from feedstock but from waste streams.

This transition from fossil fuel-based to bio-based plastic is necessary as we look towards a more sustainable future. 

Author: , DCU. This article first appeared on RTE's Brainstorm.