Plastic parallels.

Author:Frost, Calvin
Position:LETTERS FROM the Earth

In my last column I mentioned that "the current linear plastics system is broken." Sadly, like so many other truly important contributors to our society (and let's not debate the degree of importance), many of our developments since the Industrial Revolution have never considered end of life, climate change, greenhouse gas (GHG), and other environmental hot spots. Consider not only plastics, but fossil and nuclear energy, our traditional carbon generating automobiles, roll label pressure sensitive, and other highly technical developments. While contributing to our lifestyle, all have put strain on our global environment. All of this became clear when I read a paper, Production, Use, and Fate of All Plastics Ever Made, by Roland Geyer of the University of California, Santa Barbara, Jenna Jambeck of the University of Georgia, and Kara Law from the Sea Education Association. The story of plastics is so similar to our story of roll label pressure sensitive materials and needs to be told. The parallels are remarkable.

The paper is the first global analysis of "all mass produced plastics ever manufactured." It starts with the birth of plastics, which only dates back to the 1950s. This seems unimaginable when you think of resin technology, polymer development, and now large-scale, mass produced films, parts and packaging. Really, until after WWII, the military was the only user. (And this is true of PSA, hence my preoccupation with the analogy!). The growth in plastics production was nothing short of extraordinary, surpassing most other man-made materials. The largest growth period for plastics was caused by packaging, according to Geyer and group, because of a global shift from reusable to single-use containers. Naturally, you can guess what else happened: an increase in the share of plastics in municipal solid waste, from less than 1% in 1960 to more than 10% by 2005.

The vast majority of monomers used to make plastics are ethylene and propylede, and they are derived from fossil hydrocarbons. None of these are biodegradable. As a result, they accumulate rather than decompose in landfills or other natural environments such as water, both oceans and fresh water like the Great Lakes. As of today, the only way to permanently eliminate plastic waste is by destructive thermal treatment such as combustion or pyrolysis (chemical decomposition of a substance by heat). And again, I might add, this is one of the reasons I am so focused on diverting our...

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