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What do we do with the plastic?


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The Conversation

Itziar Vélaz Rivas | Itziar Vélaz Rivas

Researcher at Biodiversity and Environment Institute and professor at School of Sciences of the University of Navarra.

There is no doubt that plastic has become indispensable in our daily lives; we are surrounded by objects made of some thermoplastic polymer subject or mixture of them and with other compounds and additives added that improve or modify the characteristics of the material for the intended application. According to report PlasticsEurope in 2021, in round numbers, 40% of the plastic produced is used in packaging, while 20% is used in construction and 9% in automotive. It is also used in electronics (6%), sports, leisure and household products account for 4% of the plastic produced, and 3% is used in agriculture. The rest is distributed among accessories, biomedical material, Mechanical Engineering, etc.

Plastic appeared in 1860 and since the second half of the 20th century it has been considered an innovative material, as well as being impermeable, resistant, light, a good insulator and relatively cheap. It has very good properties that, for the moment, no other material can supply. Due to these characteristics and its versatility, its production has reached surprising and staggering figures, taking into account the impact on the environment that this material generates. In the world, in the 1950s, some 2 million tons of plastic were produced each year, and today this figure has risen to 370 million tons. If we continue at this rate, it is estimated that by 2035 we will reach double this production, and some 15 years later, the figure is likely to quadruple.

The environmental problem generated by plastic waste is well known, because it is very resistant to degradation if left out in the open. According to the June 2018 UN report on the occasion of World Environment Day it is estimated that, approximately, 5 billion plastic bags are consumed worldwide every year. Due to light (photodegradation) this waste subject is converted into microplastics (particles up to 5mm) that accumulate mainly in the sea, becoming a global problem. It is estimated that more than 80% of the garbage in the sea is plastic. According to an OCU report , microplastics have been found in 68% of 102 seafoods analyzed.

It is urgent, therefore, to reduce plastic waste, remember the three "R's": reduce, reuse and recycle, and incorporate them into our daily lives. We must bear in mind that the problem is not plastic, but the use we make of it, we must use it in a more efficient way manager. To combat the excessive consumption of this material, as of July 3, 2021 in Europe, there will be a gradual ban on single-use plastic employment (bags, plates, cups, cutlery, swabs, straws, etc.), according to Directive 2019/904.

In relation to recycling, in Spain 42% of recycled plastic materials are reused in construction materials (pipes, profiles, etc.); 23% to other markets (footwear, hangers), 14% is used in new packaging, another 9% is used in urban furniture and 6% in garbage bags; the remaining 6% is for automotive, agriculture and others. The first step to reduce plastic deposits in landfills through recycling is to separate them at source and this requires the partnership citizen and companies. Plastic bottles and containers, food and beverage cans, yogurt containers, plastic bags, film, cosmetic and hygiene tubes and jars, metal lids, tetrabricks and packaging trays should be deposited in the yellow container. From there, a whole recycling process begins, which can be mechanical, chemical or energy recovery, allowing energy to be obtained in the form of heat and the generation of fuels. Depending on the quantity and diversity of additives in the original plastic, a recycled plastic of greater or lesser purity will be obtained. In this sense, the plastic we choose for our consumer products does not have to be the same for subject .

As for food packaging, which uses 40% of the plastic produced, there are currently numerous lines of research that seek to improve food safety, preserve quality and control the conditions of the packaged food to extend its shelf life. New materials for food packaging are emerging, resulting in "active or intelligent packaging". Intelligent packaging focuses on providing more information about the product and improving its presentation while being environmentally friendly. Active packaging contains, for example, antioxidants or antimicrobial compounds that absorb or release protective substances that extend the shelf life of the food. There are also edible coatings in the form of a transparent biodegradable film that acts as packaging without generating waste. On the other hand, nanotechnology applied to packaging improves resistance to humidity and temperature, even protecting the product from microbiological spoilage. The development of this packaging subject aims to provide a solution to the economic, ethical and environmental problem of wasting 1.3 billion tons of food a year, as well as satisfying the demands of the modern consumer, with the packaging itself providing information on the quality of the product and extending its shelf life.

This article was originally published in The Conversation. Read the original.

The Conversation