From the time the first polymers were used in 1600BC when the ancient Mesoamericans processed natural rubber into balls and bands, to the invention of vulcanised rubber in 1839, natural and synthetic polymers were constantly experimented upon, for a variety of applications including clothing, toys and packaging. Plastics, a type of synthetic polymer have a variety of properties that make them very reliable, versatile and useful. These properties of plastics together with their low cost, has driven their annual worldwide demand reaching 245 million tonnes.
As much as they are useful, plastics are also bad for the environment. They have a number of social pros and cons, a few of which are elucidated below.
Plastics play a major role in contributing to the health and safety of consumers, in food and water packaging products. With safe, drinking water becoming a critical focus in rural and urban areas, plastics provide the potability for the supply and storage of clean drinking water. Plastics are also lightweight, of varied thickness, easy to manufacture and can be installed in a variety of diverse storage as well as water control and distribution systems (e.g. sewerage, storm water, land drainage and irrigation). Plastic food packaging affords safe, time-intensive storage of food, using temperature and atmosphere control in packaging during transit. The material also maintains many parts of the supply chain and is therefore crucial for upholding the health and wellness of society.
While acknowledging the many positives, it is essential to note that a significant impact of plastic is upon those who live on society’s fringes, who bear the brunt of their disposal. Most plastic waste occupy landfills causing enormous environmental damage, while also impacting the way people live and work.
Recycling of plastic is therefore very much needed, not just good for health and the environment but with manifold social benefits. Finding alternative uses of them in packaging and transportation, results in large savings in materials and fossil fuel energy. Use of lighter plastic composites in place of metal in aeroplanes and products saves significant costs in fuel and transit. Plastic capture half of the carbon used to produce them, and recycling also saves on energy and water. All of this has a significant impact on society at large, its health, its economy and communities.