Annually, 400 million tons of plastic is produced worldwide. As the world is trying to reduce its dependency on plastic, it does not seem to be reachable in the near future. What is the reason for this? What will replace plastic, would that be viable? Is it possible that plastic-phobia is exaggerated?
A world plastically deformed
Plastic use has been under intense scrutiny in the last few years with more attention being brought to the harmful effects on humans as well as the environment. The UN has gone so far as to declare a “War on Ocean Plastic”. It is estimated that 8.1 billion kilograms of plastic waste enter the ocean from coastal regions every year. A concerning aspect of this pollution is the proliferation of microplastics (plastics with a diameter of less than 5 mm) in the ecosystem. Researchers have discovered microplastics at all levels of the ocean with more fibres being found the deeper they went. These microplastics have been found to reduce reproduction in muscles and damage the liver and other organs through the plastics acting as a medium for other harmful substances to latch onto. Humans are intaking microplastics through household meals, seafood, and drinking water. While the effects of microplastics on human health are not conclusive, there is a growing body of research on the topic showcasing the numerous potential risks.
The production of plastics is also damaging to the environment. The UK and other international communities have legislation and regulations imposing limits on the levels of chemicals released to the atmosphere. Nevertheless, the are companies paying substantial amounts of money for breaking these regulations. Research published by PLOS ONE the University of Hawai’i shows that methane and ethylene, two types of greenhouse gasses, are emitted when plastic is exposed to ambient solar radiation. These gases are not only are toxic but can reduce the quality of air and degrade the soil. Therefore, knowing about the impact of plastic in our ecosystem and ignoring it is an act of cruelty to life. In light of Kantian theory, this is unacceptable as there are strong laws against pollution to protect the population and the earth.
Additionally, plastic waste exportation to less developed countries is a large problem being faced in Asia. China, which had been importing the waste of the large plastic-producing countries such as the USA, UK and Australia for decades began to factor in the impact on their own country and its population. In 2018 they began banning nearly all of its plastic importation. This led the other countries in Asia to take on the burden with disastrous consequences. From a care ethics viewpoint which emphasises the importance of relationships and benevolence, this is morally atrocious as tensions were caused between these countries. This negatively affected their political and economic relationships and displayed a gross callousness towards the less fortunate.
The current rate of plastic use cannot be tolerated as it poses a threat to a sustainable and healthy world. Though we benefit much from plastic products, they will be our greatest abuser if we do nothing about them.
A necessary plasticity
Although, plastics are perceived as being detrimental to our world in many aspects, we should never forget that they are a large reason for our technological and industrial advancements.
The ubiquity of plastics in our modern world in just over 100 years since its discovery is a testament to its practicality in almost every industry. The diversity of its use cannot be matched by any other material that might substitute it.
The versatility of plastic materials comes from their ability to mould, laminate and to tailor them chemically and physically. The range of formulations is vast and still growing. In the near future, it is expected that a plastic suitable for almost any application will be available. This will lead to a rapid production of plastics which cannot be replaced by any cheaper material.
Furthermore, the main source of greenhouse emissions is agriculture. This makes it imperative to reduce food waste and plastic food packaging plays a key role.
Plastic packaging is lightweight, reducing the number of trucks delivering the same amount of product. This decreases the costs, energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. A study shows that if a variety of plastic packaging is replaced by its non plastic counterpart, the amount of packaging generated annually in US would increase by 55 million tons. As can be seen, the problem of greenhouse gasses associated with plastics is not as simple as it sounds. Overall, plastics help reduce greenhouse gasses and energy consumption. As most plastic substitutes are plant based, it is feared that increase in production of plastic substitutes will increase deforestation. Thus, warming and acidifying the oceans, that everybody is eager to protect.
Removing plastic from our lives will be very restrictive for our growing industry. Nearly every advancement we made, every product we invented and every process we discovered since plastics came into existence has been influenced by it. No more plastics will mean, everything affected by or created with the use of plastics will have to be rethought, redesigned and recreated by the use of other methods and materials that do not include plastics. This can inhibit, stagnate or even degrade our industrial progression for many years. Discovering plastics was not a mistake, it was just a simple material discovery that people could not know the consequences of. This does not mean it is not worthwhile to make use of it. Everybody knows that plastics are everywhere and they will stay everywhere if we want the quality of our lives to stay the same. It shows that we still need to learn to live with plastics without hurting our world and maybe plastics will allow us to discover how to make the world a better and a cleaner place in the future.
According to utilitarianism, plastics should be kept in use as they are cheap, effective and popular. However it is suggested that products unnecessarily made from non-biodegradable plastic be banned. It is vital to use only recyclable plastics. New, improved mechanisms of disposal should be discovered to reduce marine pollution.