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The Plastic Problem

Posted on January 18th, 2016 by in Chemical R&D


The environmental impact of manufacturing processes we implement and the materials we choose are often important factors in design and development projects. But the effect that any product we create has on the environment doesn’t stop when it comes off the production line.

How a product is used and more importantly, how it’s disposed of, can be more problematic than production in terms of the effect on the environment.

Plastics in particular can be especially damaging at the end of their life. Often chosen for use in a whole range of products because of their durability and resistance to decomposition, plastics have a long lasting impact. It’s thought that less than 10% of the total plastic produced is effectively recycled when it’s disposed of. The rest is sent to landfill, incinerated or ends up floating in the ocean. And none of those three are particularly attractive options.

It’s well known that plastics can take a very long time to degrade and break down with some taking up to 1000 years. So plastics that make their way into landfill or the oceans are there for the long-haul. It’s estimated that 86% of all ocean debris is plastic, with 70% below the surface, which has a significant impact on wildlife and eco-systems. As well as the obvious threats to marine animals getting trapped or hurt directly from coming into contact with or eating plastic waste, plastics in the oceans also tend to make their way into the food chain.

It’s been found that species farmed and cultured for human consumption have contained micro-plastics as a result of plastic waste in the oceans. Although the effects are not yet fully understood, the potential implications will be especially worrying for seafood connoisseurs.

Although plastic is just one type of material that can have a significant environmental impact when it comes to the end of it’s life, it highlights the point that our material choices matter far beyond the life-span of the products we design or manufacture. Our responsibility stretches past the end of the production line. Use and disposal are equally important parts of sustainable development and need to be given due consideration, perhaps more now than ever before.

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