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.
If we didn’t use plastic in applications such as food packaging, what would we use instead? Paper might be one suggestion, and it sounds appealing. Paper is much more biodegradable than most plastics and can be produced from sustainable forests.
However, it is quite resource-intensive, using a lot of water and trees to produce sufficient paper material- an estimated 4-19 litres of water are used to make an A4 sheet of paper. Re-use and recycling is also problematic. Paper is flimsier than plastic (therefore less re-usable). Recycled paper can be made, of course, but any contaminants on the paper (such as ink!) can result in inferior recycled product. From a recycling point of view, paper and plastics each have advantages and disadvantages, and plastics aren’t necessarily always worse.