Plastic and its indispensable position in our lives

Plastic, from our money to our computers to our home appliances to even our trash cans, everything has some or the other form of plastic. Packaging material, furniture, electronic devices, etc. all have some or the other form of plastic. Ever since its invention in 1907, plastic has steadily become an indispensable part of our day to day lives.

However, the environmental effects of plastic on the world have been alarming and this has made many experts and environmental experts question our dependence on plastic today. Many have suggested that we consider alternatives of plastic such as Glass, Plastic, Steel, Paper and also Aluminum. We decided to take a deeper look at how each of these materials stack-up against plastic.


Plastic vs. Glass


Many experts have argued that glass can be a major alternative to plastic mainly because it is highly recyclable and is almost as versatile as plastic. It can be made into any shape, used to transport foods and liquids and even for long-term storage. However, there are some aspects of glass that are often ignored.

For starters, it takes 3 times as much energy to recycle glass as it would take to recycle plastics, thus adding to the carbon footprint in the environment and contributing to air pollution. This means we are in fact doing more harm to the environment as compared to good when it comes to glass in certain cases.

Secondly, glass  is made from sand. Now it may seem that we have plenty of sand available on beaches, desserts and even from under the ocean, we are actually using it up faster than the pace at which it can be replenished. Also, contrary to popular belief, dessert sand cannot be used to make glass. Another important implication of taking sand from the environment is that it affects the ecological balance. There are microorganisms that live under sand and depend upon it to feed. These microbes are also an important part of the food chain.

Also, only about 15-25% of the total glass that is manufactured ever gets recycled. The remaining lands up in landfills and will take decades to completely degrade by itself, if at all it does.

Health Implications of Glass


An important health implication of glass that many are unaware of is that the microorganisms that grow in glass can often be harmful. For instance, the bacteria which live in glass are known to adapt to any environmental condition and in wet surfaces, they form a bacterial Biofilm. The Biofilm is known to be much more resistant to antimicrobial treatments as compared to bacteria.

The only way to make these glass containers safe for use is to sterilize them at 60°c - 70°c for more than 20 minutes daily. This is not cost effective. Also, cleaning and sterilizing the bottles is not a completely fool-proof solution because clean water is a highly fertile breeding ground for more bacteria. Also, the cap or the lid of containers is often missed while cleaning during day-to-day use making them unsafe for use.

Plastic vs. Steel & Aluminum

Some experts have also suggested Steel, Aluminum and other metals as popular alternatives to plastic. These suggestions, have a lot of similar advantages as glass and can be lighter as well. However, metals come with their own set of issues. And, at the same time, innovations and technological breakthroughs have made plastic a much better bet for the ever evolving demands of the industry and this is done in a highly cost effective measure as well.

Many crucial industries such as mass transit, medical devices and others are today realizing the benefits of replacing metals is not only cost effective but also enhances overall performance. This is especially true when it comes to large scale, enclosure parts and even interior items and furniture.

Compared to just a decade back, the strength to weight ratio of plastic has improved drastically and that has brought down a number of costs and implications. For instance, lesser weight means higher fuel efficiency while transporting. Lesser logistics costs, maintenance costs and an overall cost-effective performance.

Furthermore, the production times for creating plastic materials is much lesser are compared to their metal counterparts. This directly has an effect on timelines and helps in catering to an increased demand. Also, the process is less labor-intensive as well.

Plastic vs. Paper

Paper has one significant advantage over plastic, in the fact that it decomposes in 40% lesser time as compared to plastic.

The first general fact about paper is that it is manufactured from trees and cutting trees is equally, if not more harmful to the environment as compared to plastic.

Also, one of the greatest arguments which goes against paper is the fact that it takes  4 times as much energy  to produce a paper bag as compared to one made from plastic. Also, paper packaging materials, unlike their plastic counterparts are much heavier. This means the overall cost of production, cost of transportation and usage costs are actually much higher for paper than for plastic.

To add to this, paper bags have a much lesser surface to weight ratio and cannot be reused as much as plastic bags either, especially in humid and wet regions of the world.

Thinking for the Future

If you ever drop a plastic bottle, it will not break or get damaged like glass, will not be damaging like the ones made from metals. Moreover, with advancing technology, today we are able to obtain many naturally occurring polymers such as those extracted from soy protein, cellulose and even vegetable oils that can be used after refining to create bioplastics. Also, plastics have not only kept operating costs low but also helped in increasing the overall shelf life of many goods that are packaged in them. They also require less energy for transportation, hold greater mass and help in prolonging the life of many major appliances.

To conclude, compared to most other materials, the environmental effects of plastic can be reduced much more drastically to make them more eco-friendly. What needs to be done is increase the overall reusing and recycling of plastic while also ensuring that there is a reduction in overall plastic waste.

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Printable version | May 29, 2022 1:19:37 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/brandhub/plastic-and-its-indispensable-position-in-our-lives/article61649261.ece