Pervasive plastic: will new plastic solutions work?

The problem of plastic usage and production, Helen White says, is ever-growing. Instead of pursuing 'eco-friendly' plastics, we should be searching for an alternative with the goal of moving away from the material for good.

Plastic bottles
Plastic bottles
Helen White

Plastic waste is a scourge of our time. It has clogged up our soil, our atmosphere and our oceans, which has prompted people to look for alternatives. Many companies are phasing the material out, but some are not just continuing to use plastic, they are introducing it where previously greener and safer materials were used.

Humanity has already generated over nine billion tons of plastic products, from lunchboxes and pens to utility poles and furniture. The material has crept into the environment, being found even in remote corners of our planet, such as Antarctica.

Not only does plastic waste endanger flora and fauna, but it can also result in a host of health issues for people who consume seafood contaminated with toxic micro and nano-plastics. The plastic waste problem, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, is a major part of the global pollution crisis. Against this backdrop, the actions of some companies to introduce plastic innovations look more than odd.

Despite the fact that plastic is a practical enough material, some industries have previously managed without its use quite successfully. Now, influenced by various factors – be it recycling or perceived durability – they are introducing the material into the manufacturing process. However, the results are not what one would expect.

Dressed in plastic

Traditionally, clothes were made from natural fabrics, such as cotton or linen. As science was progressing, manufacturers introduced alternatives: synthetic fibres and, more recently, recycled plastics. It is already common for consumers to buy a pair of trousers knowing that the garment is made of recycled bottles. A purchase like this is fashionable in several ways – it looks good (as any new piece of clothing does) and it’s eco-friendly (at least they say so), which is fashionable, too.

However, it's not as ideal as it appears. Recycled plastic is used to make polyester fibres. The polyester fabric feels completely different from what it used to be – it's soft, it can be fluffy and pleasant to the touch, it looks good and provides versatile properties such as extra warmth and breathability. However, in essence, it remains plastic and continues to harm the environment after the first wash.

The problem starts in the washing machine. Just as lint collects on clothes made of natural fabrics, clothes made of plastic (not just polyester, but also nylon or acrylic) shed microfibers. Normally, we don’t see them since they are washed away into the sewage. The plastic lint is too small to be caught by sewage filters, but its volume is impressive – Imogen Napper and Richard Thompson, marine scientists at the University of Plymouth, held a study and found that around 700,000 fibres come off in a typical wash, another research project estimating that polyester fleece sheds nearly 1,000,000 fibres in a single wash. After a washing machine discharges water, these tiny parts of our dresses, trousers, shirts and other clothes have every chance to float into rivers, seas and oceans, with the potential to pollute the water, harm sea dwellers and, eventually, get in our bodies, too.

The price of plastic money

A few years ago, polymer banknotes were the talk of the world. In addition to alleged improved properties such as durability, the money was labelled as more eco-friendly compared to convenient paper money, despite banknote paper being made mostly out of cotton, not cellulose. Polymer cash has now been introduced in over 20 countries, while others are considering the possibilities.

Apparent environmental friendliness is one of the most attractive features of the polymer notes – it is assumed that they last longer, thus reducing the environmental impact. Yet, it turns out that this is not exactly the case. The polymer used in such banknotes has a different name but, like polyester fabric mentioned above, is still plastic. Accordingly, the associated problems remain the same – a plastic by any other name would pollute as much.

The first issues arise at the very first manufacturing stage. A study by UK-based company MoneyBoat found that during the production process, polymer banknotes create twice the volume of carbon dioxide as paper money. After production, the banknotes go into circulation, where they are expected to last at least 5 years on average. However, the Bank of England’s experience showed that around 20 million polymer £5 notes and some 26 million £10 notes weren’t able to withstand daily turnover, having to be replaced in the period from 2016 to 2020. Consequently, new banknotes had to be issued, which further increased carbon dioxide emissions.

Like paper banknotes, polymer money is recycled, but there is a difference. Whereas paper bills live their afterlife as soil fertilizers, paper calendars or files, their polymer counterparts are turned into pellets and sold for industrial use to become the same plastic in another form. And while it only takes two to six weeks for paper to decompose, this plastic will stay the same for 500 and more years. 

Given that 79 per cent of plastic waste ends up in landfills, we can discern the true lifecycle of polymer notes, from the banknote printing works to the soil at landfills and nearby, where they will be releasing toxic chemicals and getting into living organisms for many years.        

A road to atmosphere pollution

What is an ordinary road made of? We are used to walking and riding on asphalt concrete, pavement, stones and other materials that have been serving the world for ages. Soon, however, we will be able to drive or stroll on plastic – literally.

In the search for new ways to recycle plastic waste, scientists are inventing new solutions, and recycled polyethylene terephthalate (PET), that is, plastic, has become one of them. The liquid recycled plastic is mixed with old asphalt and poured onto the road. The resulting surface is expected to last longer and be a more environmentally friendly alternative to traditional materials, but as with all things, the good intentions only pave the road to more plastic pollution.

The problem lies in abrasion. Dozens of cars ride on popular routes every hour. The speed and sheer weight of the vehicles literally scrape microplastic fibres away from the surface. The mechanism here is similar to that described in the section about clothes, only in this case the plastic is released into the air. The turbulence of cars serves as a kind of fan that sends microplastic fibres into the air. Thanks to their lightweight nature, they spread out over dozens of kilometres and get into the airways of all those who happen to be nearby. Afterwards, they rain down to earth, get into water and soil, and the new round of pollution begins.

There’s no plastic, it’s fantastic

After all, even if you manage to make another bottle out of a bottle, there is no guarantee that it won't end up in the environment. You can catch trash from the ocean, recycle it, but it's all a battle against the consequences. If you stop there, the growth of pollution will never end. Many have already realized this and are switching from plastic to more sustainable materials – for example, cookware manufacturers are turning to steel, bamboo, ceramics and durable glass, packaging companies use cardboard from recycled paper and beeswax-coated cloth, and clothing companies are switching to natural fabrics. There are some issues here too, since any manufacture has an environmental impact, but these materials decompose faster and, if produced with the right technology, do not release toxins into the environment.

Yet despite all efforts, plastic continues to dominate. Even recycling does not do much to save the crisis situation that is unfolding right now, and plastic (any kind of plastic, from synthetic fabric to polymer) ends up in the environment. Considering that the material cannot be recycled more than two or three times, the problem of its production and use is growing. So, is it really worth introducing new plastics where there are eco-friendly alternatives? The answer is obvious, but so is the huge problem for which we have yet to find a solution.