Plastics are so useful because they are cheap, mechanically strong, light in weight, pliable and can be shaped into pretty much any form. Plastics have been used for nearly 200 years and have replaced other more traditional materials such as metals and wood.
S&P Global Ratings forecast that plastic packaging is unlikely to be replaced in the near future. Plastics has advantages over alternative packaging options like paper or glass. Global plastic production now stands at over 300 million tonnes per year. Changes to plastic production are more likely, including a possible increase in the amount of recycled plastics over time.
Of the 14 percent that is collected globally for recycling, 8 percent is made into plastics of inferior quality, while 4 percent is lost in the process and only 2 percent is recycled into plastic of the same or equivalent quality. Most of these plastics are designed for single use only and end up in landfills, dumps or in the open environment.
Plastics are produced from crude oil through chemical reactions. About 8% of global oil production is used for plastics. In 2017, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation proposed three strategies to transform the global plastic packaging market, which were: 1) fundamental redesign and innovation, 2) reuse and 3) recycling with radically improved economics and quality.
On the first strategy, an important way forward could be to develop new plastics from renewable resources instead of fossil fuels. A Nature article has reviewed potential renewable sources such as carbon dioxide, plant or vegetable oils, and carbohydrates (e.g., sugar) which could be used to produce sustainable plastics. Sustainable plastics made from components of plants and animals (or bio-resources) can be called bioplastics.
Besides bioplastics that are produced from simple organic matters, there are also bioplastics that are directly obtained from plants and animals. These naturally existing plastics include biomass (e.g., starch and cellulose), protein, and chitin. Biomass can be found everywhere on planet Earth including from agricultural bioproducts or wastes. Proteins can be from soy, zein, whey and gelatin.
There is still a lot of ongoing research to explore the chemistry and engineering aspects for working with these bioplastics. If we can find safe and environmentally friendly bioplastics to replace traditional plastics for high-volume applications like packaging, foams and disposable items, we can reduce the carbon footprint of production, produce minimal plastic waste and create products which are better for humans to use. If these bioplastic materials are used for biomedical applications, then there is less pain and better recovery of patients. With the development and use of bioplastics, we are closer to a more sustainable future.
1. Dr Fengwei (David) Xie (2019), Plastics of the future https://warwick.ac.uk/
2. MESTECC (2018), Malaysia’s Roadmap Towards Zero Single-Use Plastics 2018-2030
3. What is the future for plastics? https://www.spglobal.com/