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.
“Hang on a minute!” you may cry. “I thought half the problem with plastic is that we AREN’T recycling it properly?” Of course. But that’s the fault of our lifestyle and processes, not the fault of the material itself. You CAN recycle many plastics quite well. However, to make a valuable recycled product, you first need to separate the different types of plastic. Then you need to tailor your recycling process for each type of plastic. If you try to mix lots of different types of plastic all together and recycle it, you just end up with an inferior material.
In practice, this kind of separation is often uneconomic, so a lot of plastic just gets thrown away after one use. As a consumer, it is difficult to have much impact on this, but if manufacturers and legislators could agree to standardise a lot of packaging (by using similar sorts of materials, say, and not coating them with toxic paints) then recycling the material would become much more viable.