Source Plastic into 2020
BY Alex Hoffer
The New Year brings a new set of conversations to the forefront when it comes to the debate of plastics. Despite its contributions to innovation, the plastics industry has garnered increasing criticism for its environmental impact. We continue to use plastics, though, because it boasts a high strength-to-weight ratio and can be easily shaped into a wide variety of forms that are impermeable to liquids and are highly resistant to physical and chemical degradation.
These materials can be produced at a relatively low cost, making it easier for companies to sell, scale and save. The primary challenge is that the proliferation of plastics in our everyday use, in combination with poor end-of-life waste management, has resulted in widespread and persistent plastic pollution. It’s present in all the world’s major ocean basics, including remote islands, the poles and the deep seas, and an additional 5 to 13 million metric tons are introduced every year.
However, consider for a moment that it is possible that the plastics industry is doing more good than harm, and that the environmental issues the industry faces have more to do with recycling than production.
As we dive into 2020, here are a few points to help aide our collective attitude toward plastics:
Plastics and the Environment
Austrian environment consultancy Denkstatt recently a study to determine the impacts of farmers, retailers and consumers using recyclable products to package their goods rather than plastic. What they found was that mass of packaging would increase by 3.6 times, and would take more than double the energy to make, thereby increasing greenhouse gases by 2.7 times.
One common proposal for replacing plastics with different materials is to replace plastic bags with paper ones in grocery stores. While this may sound like a more sustainable solution, the data does not support it. By volume, paper takes up more room in landfills and does not disintegrate as rapidly as plastic. Because of this, plastic bags leave half the carbon footprint of cotton and paper bags.
Plastics and Hunger
In my visits to the Northern Illinois Food Bank, I’ve had the honor of serving those in need of access to nutritious food and innovative feeding programs. While helping stock the pantry or pass out holiday baskets, I noticed how food packaging alone impacts visitors’ perceptions. Most of the food at the food bank is canned or jarred, yet it is the plastic-wrapped food that always looks fresher.
This may be in part due to its properties: it is durable, flexible, it does not shatter, it can breathe (or not) and it is extremely lightweight. As a result, food and drink are protected from damage and preserved for varying lengths of time.
The European Packaging and Film Association (PAFA) reported that the average spoilage of food between harvest and table is 3 percent in the developed world, compared to 50 percent in developing countries where plastic pallets, crates, trays, film and bags are not as commonly available. This data point shows us that plastics play an integral role in the preservation of food. In a world where many go hungry, it is advantageous to continue to support an industry that helps to keep families fed and reduces food waste.
Plastics and Cars
Turning our attention to plastics’ relationship with the automotive industry, let’s start with safety. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that today’s seat belts, which are made with industrial strength plastics, have the potential to reduce auto fatalities by as much as 45 percent and serious injury by 50 percent, compared to not being buckled in.
Beyond the seat belt and other accessories, modern plastics can be made to be resilient and flexible, soft and cushioned, or tough and shatter-resistant. This allows them to contribute to vehicle safety in a substantial way. Car manufacturers rely on plastic to make lightweight materials that reduce the weight of automobiles so they can meet the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standard, which is set to be increased to 54.5 miles per gallon (mpg) by 2025. I predict that the use of plastics to minimize the weight of cars will be an integral part of car manufacturers’ efforts to meet these new standards.
Therefore, the plastics industry will be contributing in improvements to fuel efficiency that will ultimately reduce the environmental footprint of vehicles.
Plastics and Healthcare
Plastic materials increase the efficiency and hygiene of the physician’s office. Plastic syringes and tubing are disposable to reduce disease transmission. Plastic intravenous (IV) bags and tubing let healthcare workers more easily view dosages and replacement needs. Plastic heart valves and knee and hip joints save lives and make patients’ lives more comfortable. Plastic prostheses help amputees regain function and improve their quality of life.
Plastics and Jobs
While some people might celebrate a world in which the plastics industry in America suddenly came to an end, that celebration would quickly be overshadowed by the 989,000 individuals in the United States losing their paychecks to support their families.
Even in 2019, the argument to remove plastics from our way of life entirely was not a feasible option. Plastics’ contribution to the health of our environment, the safety and durability of our healthcare products, the fuel efficiency on our roads, and the growth of the economy, tells us that it is worth putting our best efforts toward understanding this debate further.
Editor’s Note: Look for the article, “High-Density Plastic Tests Positive for Central Asphalt Mix, Paving,” by Sandy Lender, in the February issue of AsphaltPro for more on recycling plastics.
Alex Hoffer is the vice president of sales and operations at Hoffer Plastics Corporation, where he is focused on launching a fully recyclable Trust-T-Lok product line for fully recyclable spouted pouches to address food waste and other human impact challenges.