A quick search on Google reveals how much negativity surrounds the use of plastics. There are lists being provided by various credible and not-so-credible websites on how plastics are bad, not just for the environment but for us as well. But I want us all to take a step back from this narrative. As someone who cares deeply about our planet, I want to tell you that despite all the challenges they present, plastics are a phenomenal development in the world of material science.
By the 1940s, we had already developed both plastics and methods of mass-producing them. Their development saved us from the barriers presented by the limited availability of natural resources such as wood, iron and glass. They are a versatile material that is malleable, easily manufactured and available in different colours and forms, besides being low-cost. Today, plastics are being used in a range of sectors. A quick glance around your own home will show you how inextricably linked they are to our lifestyle and infrastructure. Packaging, building applications, automobiles, furniture and toys are all reliant on plastics, alongside playing a major role in the field of medicine, among others.
Despite all the challenges they present, plastics are a phenomenal development in the world of material science
Still, we are increasingly finding that the very planet that we live on is in trouble due to them. The primary fault of plastics is that they don’t biodegrade, which means that bacteria cannot break them down as it does other organic material. This long-life of plastics can be embraced in the field of infrastructure such as building bridges however their irresponsible societal use has turned plastics, something very exciting, to something that is simultaneously used and abused by society.
As someone who’ll soon be beginning the third-year chemistry module ‘Polymers and Colloid Science’, I see it as a responsibility to explain that plastics are not the problem. It is not the material but rather its ill-management and ill-use, especially in the form of single-use plastics, that is leading to the dire consequences for the environment, such as polluted beaches, the ‘garbage patches’ in our oceans, and the ingestion by marine life leading to starvation and death. Of course, you may argue that the fundamental component of polymers is petroleum, a finite and rapidly diminishing resource, making them unsustainable. But, fractions from crude oil aren’t only used to make polymers. They also fuel our cars, power our homes and are a fundamental part of organic chemistry, often described as the chemistry of life.
It is not the material but rather its ill-management and ill-use, especially in the form of single-use plastics, that is leading to the dire consequences for the environment
Petroleum is just another resource on the list that needs to be managed well. You don’t stop living because you know an end will inevitably come. Likewise, it is better to use the benefits that come with petroleum while it lasts, alongside conducting research into alternative sources. Don’t resent the material only because humans have failed to use it sustainably. This is, in fact, exactly what is being done. Scientists work very hard to find new resources for the benefit of society. There is intense research being conducted, including at Warwick, into sustainability, be it the field of energy, food security or manufacturing. Recently Warwick researchers, in collaboration with York, found that lignin could be turned into biodegradable plastic. This was a result of a 40-year-long dedication of Professor Tim Bugg at the Department of Chemistry, in case you’re wondering the duration of their commitment to our planet.
Businesses such as Sugru have made available to us mouldable glue, which is made using polymers, helping us to put into practice the concept of reusing rather than disposing of things. In this way, they have shown to us that the material that is dubbed the problem also provides us the solution to the ever-increasing volumes of plastic waste. Warwick is a hub of polymer research with BonLab focussing on combining polymers and colloid science with their work having far-reaching impacts on the food, agricultural, and the personal care industry, among other fields.
Don’t resent the material only because humans have failed to use it sustainably
So, let us all bring a stop to the hypocrisy inherent in blaming plastics for the environmental issues while continuing to use them. Instead, a more effective approach would be spending more time reflecting upon the concepts of reducing, reusing and recycling. It is imperative that we redirect our energy from our redundant ranting into considering how to best prevent plastics from our homes ending up becoming the fatal accessories of our seas and oceans.