Plastics have recently become the “bad guy” of materials, mainly because they don’t degrade easily or quickly. People throw away plastic and clog landfills or create unsightly trash. This has caused major problems for many wildlife. Marine animals, in particular, often get tangled up in plastic waste. Even worse, tiny plastic particles (” microplastics “) can damage the digestive systems of the animals that eat them.
As a species, humans aren’t very good at dealing with the amount of plastic waste we produce. However, plastic is a very useful material! You may be surprised to learn that plastic isn’t all bad. Let’s look at the useful aspects of plastic.
We don’t have to stick to ‘traditional’ plastics. Researchers are coming up with new materials all the time. For example, ‘smart’ plastics can interact with their environment in some well-defined way. One research group recently showed that a plastic film containing embedded glass spheres can absorb energy from the sun and emit it at lower energies, thus providing a cooling effect.
Using plastics to ‘passively’ cool buildings in this way could give considerable energy savings compared to traditional air conditioning. Other examples could include packaging that alerts people to potential damage to the contents (such as materials that change colour if the temperature gets too high) again helping to reduce waste. With innovation and creativity, plastics can be useful in ways that we haven’t imagined yet.